Ways to improve a cervical herniated disc quickly?
April 5, 2013 6:15 AM   Subscribe

I recently got an MRI and was diagnosed with a cervical herniated disc. Not much pain, but there is numbness and tingling in the left thumb, and very tense shoulders along with some other symptoms. It has been about 2 months since I got it. For people who have had a cervical herniated disc - besides resting and visiting the doctor, do you have any other advice for getting the hernia gone as quickly as possible?

The doctor said that it is not a very large hernia, but it is not improving - actually seems like it is getting worse. Typing seems to make it worse as well, but I need to type a lot for my job unfortunately. I am getting traction and electrotherapy in rehab, but nothing else besides that.

INYAND but: For people who have had this condition, how long did it take for you to get back to health? Did you do anything on your own besides rest which seemed to help? I'm currently taking hot baths and doing a lot of stretching (like the double chin). I've also really worked on my posture - sitting and standing up straight, with a monitor at eye level when typing. But nothing seems to make the symptoms better and I'm getting rather frustrated.
posted by Thanquol180 to Health & Fitness (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have never had a herniated disc, but I have a lot of problems with my cervical spine. The most comfortable position for me by far is to lie at...oh, maybe a 130-145? degree angle with my head and neck fully supported. I can't do this at work, obviously, but unless I'm eating, when I'm sitting down at home I'm pretty much always reclined like this. (Pretty easy to type this way...bend your knees and rest the keyboard in your lap.)

It makes a huge, huge difference in the amount of stress my shoulders and back feel, and takes all of the holding-up-your-own-head pressure off of my neck.

Might be worth trying.
posted by phunniemee at 6:23 AM on April 5, 2013

Sorry to hear about your back.

I went through something similiar last year with a disc. Glad to see you working with a PT, I would check with them to see what you should and shouldn't be doing at home. I ended up initially pushing my limits and slowed down the healing process.

I made sure I didn't stay sitting for longer than an hour other wise I would tighten up and noticeably limp.

A foam roller is a wonderful thing. Splurging on nice pillows to sleep on was well worth the investment for me.

I wish you luck and patience.
posted by ACEness at 7:18 AM on April 5, 2013

beginning on christmas 2011, I have/had a herniated disc between C5 and C6, which was pinching the nerves that serve my thumb and pointer finger. I went through some physical therapy, which consisted of some traction, neck massage and also some exercises. The therapist also gave concrete suggestions to posture. As the therapy progressed, he suggested I get a traction machine for home use. I did and it is great. I was initially doing it every day for 20 minutes at the pressure setting the Physical Therapist told me to use. I'm down to once a month or so. I still have tightness along my shoulder and have a constant "need to pop" sensation in my neck, but the numbness gradually went away over about 6 months.

It was totally worth the $700 i had to pay because my insurance was poopheads and the people I got it from weren't "approved suppliers".
posted by ArgentCorvid at 7:19 AM on April 5, 2013

I have a "protruding" (as opposed to herniated) C5-C6 disc, and it is protruding centrally, toward my spinal cord (yay!), rather than sideways, into one of my nerve roots--which is what it sounds like yours is doing. Have seen two neurosurgeons and they both think I can just wait and see whether my symptoms change over time. I think the consensus is usually to put off surgery as long as possible unless there's good evidence for permanent nerve or spinal cord damage.

My symptoms are primarily: deep aching pain in the back of my neck & tops of shoulders, and occasional numbness/parasthesias(sp?) between my shoulder blades.

What I've done, and whether it has helped:
--Massage. Got a script from my doctor for this, so ended up paying much less than otherwise would have. This really helped with the stiffness and pain. It is the ONE thing I can say, without a doubt, has helped.
--Painkillers (NSAIDS). These have helped to varying degrees. There have been periods of months at a time where I took ibuprofen every single day (my doctor knew about this). Now, between flare-ups, I take a baby aspirin every day.
--Traction. Had this done by a physical therapist for a while, also got a home traction unit (a cheap, crappy one). Honestly, I'm not really sure this has helped, but I think it's pretty safe if done in a cautious, conservative manner. Definitely worth trying.
--Physical therapy. I found this useful--mainly for learning a bunch of new techniques for stretching and strengthening my upper back and neck. Especially for stretching out one's pecs and shoulders (if you're like a lot of us, you're somewhat curled inward from sitting at a desk all day). I say do this if you can, for a few visits, learn the exercises, then drop out. PT is expensive (at least, it is for me).
--Walking. I know it sounds weird, but I'm convinced that going for long walks helps loosen everything up, and helps keep the pain at bay.

One thing I emphatically will not do is have a chiropractor do anything to my neck. But I think chiropractors are quacks.

Right now I go through periods of remission, where I have no pain for long periods (1-2 months), and then mini flare-ups that are annoying, but not horrible.

Good luck!
posted by bennett being thrown at 7:26 AM on April 5, 2013

I always thought herniated discs didn't repair themselves? That treatment was palliative to make it not hurt, physical therapy to strengthen muscles nearby to keep it from getting damaged further, and surgery if that didn't work.

It sounds to me that since you are experiencing back tension and the numbness, that your physical therapy isn't working as well as it should, or they are doing it wrong. You might be sore (like muscle aches) after PT, but you shouldn't be tense. I wonder if your attempts at better posture aren't quite getting it right and you are creating other problems, or at least not making things any better. I would ask the PT to show you what the proper posture is for standing and sitting, and make sure you remember how it feels.
posted by gjc at 7:52 AM on April 5, 2013

I always thought herniated discs didn't repair themselves?

It depends on how the OP is using the word "hernia". If the disc is bulging out of its assigned space, it can sometimes be encouraged to suck itself back in with proper physical therapy (depending on the amount of bulginess). If the disc is truly ruptured, that will probably require surgery to repair, which (in my case) required a small plate screwed into my vertebrae. I've heard people use "herniated disc" to mean both types of situations. I don't know if one is the proper medical term or not.

Anyway, Thanquol180, 2nding and 3rding all mentions of seeing a physical therapist experienced with the neck. Get yourself on weight training routine (after consulting with a PT) to stengthen your neck and upper back muscles. Be careful of lifting ANY weight at all, especially if you're lifting it away from your body. Take a look at your driving position, especially if you drive stick. Do you read in bed with your head propped up on a pillow? Stop it right now. Check the firmness of your pillows for sleeping. Make sure your neck is supported. I could never get comfortable with those special neck support pillows, but maybe they'll work for you.

Good luck. Surgery made me completely pain-free and fixed the problem (bulging disc at C6-C7), but it took a VERY long time for me to recover physically from the surgery, and I'm not sure I would go for surgery again so quickly. (But, gah, the pain...)
posted by SuperSquirrel at 8:53 AM on April 5, 2013

Have patience. Recovering from “broad based 5-6mm bulging of discs at C5-6 & C6-7” took well over a year for me, but other injuries were associated. I distrust chiropractors so avoided them. Swim therapy worked best for me. I learned to roll, rotating my body with each stroke, instead of twisting my head for breaths. Positioning the computer monitor at eye level helped a lot too. Keep moving, don’t stay stationary at your desk. Rotate and twist your body gently frequently. Take it easy and try to avoid actions that aggravate your neck and upper body. Take pain meds as needed. Best wishes for a speedy recovery.
posted by X4ster at 10:08 AM on April 5, 2013

For people who have had this condition, how long did it take for you to get back to health?

I've had what turned out to be a disc issue for about ten years now. I've been doing physical therapy (mostly on my own) for more than two years. If it was going to get better on its own, it would have by now.

Back issues rarely resolve themselves without some kind of intervention.
posted by valkyryn at 10:36 AM on April 5, 2013

I have had a herniated cervical disc for years (don't fall off horses, kids) that was diagnosed with MRI. What worked for me when it initially flared up and made my fingers numb was muscle relaxants and seeing a physical therapist, who gave me exercises to do at home twice a day. I had improvement fairly quickly, but it took several weeks to get all the way back to feeling pretty normal. When my neck acts up, heat therapy, and doing my exercises for a few days get things better again. I consciously need to remember to relax my shoulders, and staying active helps a lot - even just a walk. I also sleep with a shaped memoryfoam pillow with great neck support. It took a lot of getting used to, but now I can't use anything else to keep my neck in decent shape - one night without that pillow and I risk ending up with numb fingers and ouch. It is my understanding that this kind of injury does not go away without surgery (and a friend of mine who had surgery said she wished she hadn't done it), but you can manage it well if you learn how. Mine flares up from time to time but I generally know how to manage it now (special pillow, regular exercise, minimize stress that makes my shoulders tense, don't sit in certain positions, etc.).

My doc at the time was a sports medicine guy, and I think that probably helped me a lot in terms of treatment. Maybe see if you can get a referral to a physiotherapist?
posted by biscotti at 2:34 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

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