The spine or backbone is our body’s major support structure, keeping us upright while bearing our body weight. Adding to these essential functions is our spine’s movement capacities, making bending and twisting our bodies possible.
So much physical demand is imposed on our spine, making it prone to spinal disc herniation — a geeky term for a slipped disc — that may cause a very painful lower or upper back.
Don’t allow your happiness to slip away because of a slipped disc — understand what causes disc herniation, its symptoms and the non-surgical as well as surgical treatments available, including some tips on how to use gel packs.
Anatomy of the spine
The spinal column is made up of 24 individual bones called vertebrae. These are divided into three sections: the cervical, the thoracic and the lumbar spine.
The cervical spine or neck is composed of the first seven vertebrae; the next 12 bones comprise the thoracic vertebrae and the remaining five are known as the lumbar vertebral, located in the lower back.
The spine connects the various skeleton parts to each other, and apart from its weight-bearing functions, it also supports various bodily movements.
What is a spinal disc?
Spinal discs (also spelled with a “k”) are pads that serve as shock absorbers, allowing you to withstand the impact of movements and weight. Besides preventing the vertebrae from rubbing against each other, the discs also provide flexibility and range of movement, such as bending and twisting.
Each disc has strong fibrous outer layers that hold the disc in place and a soft, jelly-like center. Factors such as aging, a high impact injury and overexertion can cause problems with your spine, including a herniated disc.
What causes a herniated disc?
Herniated discs are predominantly caused by degeneration, or the body’s normal aging process. When the outer ring of the disc becomes damaged, weak or torn, the inner section of the disc slips out.
Disc herniation affects mostly men in their 30s to 50s, likely due to physically demanding jobs, aging and injuries. Most cases, however, may be undiagnosed because they do not feel any symptom.
A slipped disc can happen anywhere in the spine, most commonly in the lower back, or lumbar spine, and the neck, or cervical spine.
These are the common causes of a herniated disc:
- Aging: The body’s normal wear and tear causes physical changes in our spine that make it more vulnerable to herniation.
As we age, the water content in the discs decreases as it loses its flexibility and the ligaments that keep it together weakens. The discs then begin to shrink, and the already narrow spinal canal becomes more restricted, displacing the bones and making it susceptible to herniation.
- Injury: An acute injury such as a fall or an excessive strain may also cause a herniated disc because forceful twisting or bending movements may cause the disc to slip out.
- Repetitive movements: Physically demanding occupations, sports activities and lifestyles that require bending, pulling and lifting often puts repeated stress on the spine, particularly on the lower back, increasing the risk of disc problems.
- Poor posture: Sitting hunched over the computer for hours also puts too much pressure on your spine. So does improperly lifting a heavy object.
- Weight: Excessive weight may also cause too much strain and pressure on one’s spine, making it vulnerable to herniation, too.
- Genetics: A 2011 study discovered that developing lumbar disc disease may have a genetic component.
What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?
Symptoms vary depending on the number and location of the affected discs. However, if disc herniation does not cause sciatic nerve pinching, the sufferer may not feel any pain at all, especially if it’s in the early stages.
In most instances, the first indication of a herniated disc is lower back pain that could range from mild to severe. The discomfort may last for a few days and go away on its own or via natural treatments.
A herniated disc typically leads to problems with the spinal nerves that provide sensation and movement to large parts of our body, including the arms and legs.
- Pain: As the body’s way of telling you that there’s something wrong, back pain due to a herniated disc may go with sciatica pain, described as a radiating discomfort in your lower back, buttocks, thigh and calf, and sometimes even your feet.
A pinched nerve in the neck, also called cervical radiculopathy, likewise causes symptoms felt along the nerve pathway, which includes the shoulder, arm and hand.
- Numbness: As the affected sensory nerves are pinched, your legs or arms will feel tingly or numb.
- Weakness: The muscles to which the nerves are attached tend to weaken, too, causing you to stumble or have difficulties lifting or holding an object.
In a rare and severe case called “cauda equina syndrome”, a person may suffer from loss of bladder and bowel control. Immediate medical intervention is required in this instance.
But really, this is more an exception than the rule. A medical review showed that more than 85 percent of slipped disc sufferers got better within eight to 12 weeks.
7 non-surgical treatments for a herniated disc
Engaging in non-surgical treatments is the first step in addressing a herniated disc. Medical intervention may be needed in severe cases, though.
Active rest: Avoid activities that cause too much strain on your spine, but bed rest is not advisable as it may worsen your condition. An orthopedist may advise you to perform low-impact or light exercises for a few days to several weeks to help ease pain and reduce inflammation. Yoga stretches and light exercises can help, too.
Correct your sleeping position: Herniated disc pain can worsen during the night. For some relief and hopefully to regain a good night’s sleep (which may help you become less sensitive to pain), place a pillow under your knees to relieve lower back pressure. If you’re a side sleeper, put a pillow in between your knees to straighten your spine.
Physical therapy: Specific exercises will help strengthen your lower back and abdominal muscles. A physical therapist can help you create a program suitable for patients with herniated discs.
NSAIDs: You may take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications to resolve pain, but do not take drugs for more than two weeks or you’ll risk experiencing adverse effects.
Epidural steroid injection: To provide short-term pain relief not addressed by NSAIDs and other stronger pain medications, a cortisone-like drug may have to be injected along your spinal nerve.
Alternative medicine: Meditation, which is said to help manage pain perception, and acupuncture, which stimulates the body’s healing response, may likewise offer relief from inflammation and discomfort caused by a herniated disc. Some sufferers swear by herbal medications packed with anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. Turmeric, garlic, arnica, Devil’s claw, and St. John’s wort are few of the herbal supplements believed to ease the symptoms, although studies have yet to validate their efficacy.
Ice and heat therapy: If you want the safest and fastest pain relief for a herniated disc, gel packs are your best option.
Can I use an ice pack for a herniated disc?
Some people prefer warm over cold therapy because of how it makes them feel. Indeed, a warm pack is more soothing and relaxing, but an ice pack works best to address pain and inflammation, at least in the first few hours. Heat is not advisable for inflammation because it encourages blood flow, which could increase the swelling.
The most effective manner of using temperature therapy is alternating cold and heat applications, as confirmed by a 2014 study.
You can use hot and cold therapies for the following lower back problems:
- Herniated or degenerated discs
- Minor acute injuries such as sprains or sports mishaps
- Muscle soreness
- Pulled back muscle due to overexertion
- Spinal stenosis
Cold therapy should be applied for a few days to ease pain and inflammation. After two to three days, or when the swelling has subsided, use a warm pack to ease tight muscles and promote tissue healing.
How does cold therapy help ease a herniated disc?
Pain is one of the main symptoms of a herniated disc, and cold therapy, being a natural analgesic and a vasoconstrictor, can effectively address this.
Cold therapy numbs the tissues, slowing down the receptors from sending pain messages to the brain. Ice likewise eases the nerve pulses in the area of application, interrupting the pain-spasm processes between the nerves.
As a vasoconstrictor, cold therapy narrows the blood vessels, effectively keeping unwanted fluids away from the affected area.
7 tips for gel pack use on back pain caused by a herniated disc
- To avoid the possibility of an ice burn, do not use the packs for more than 20 minutes. Take breaks of about one to two hours between each application. To further prevent an ice burn, cover the ice pack with a cloth or towel before placing it on your bare skin.
- For acute back pain, use cold therapy first then a warm pack later. As an analgesic, cold therapy creates a numbing effect to address pain. As a vasoconstrictor, it minimizes swelling and decreases inflammation.
After two to three days, heat therapy should be applied to stimulate blood circulation, accelerating the tissue healing process. Besides this, a warm temperature eases stiff muscles, promoting your lower back flexibility.
- For back pain that lasts for more than a month, heat therapy may be better than cold therapy. Try this hot and cold lower back pack to apply soothing therapeutic relief that may be used either warm or cold.
- When it comes to muscle soreness, cold therapy is your friend in reducing inflammation, pain and tissue damage.
- In alternating heat and cold therapy, apply an ice pack to the affected area for 15 minutes once every hour. Apply heat for 15 minutes every two or three hours.
- Both hot and cold therapies should not be used when the affected area is wounded, bleeding or is oozing any type of fluid.
- Due to potential tissue damage, persons with medical conditions that result in nerve sensitivity impairment or blood circulation issues are advised to avoid these natural therapies. Among these conditions are multiple sclerosis, diabetes mellitus, poor circulation and Raynaud’s disease.
What are the surgical treatments for a herniated disc?
A doctor may deem it necessary for a patient to undergo surgery if various non-surgical treatments fail to address the symptoms. Vital considerations such as a patient’s age and overall health condition, among others, should be studied carefully, with the advantages outweighing the risks involved in the procedure.
Artificial disc surgery, laminotomy, laminectomy, discectomy and spinal fusion are the common procedures to correct disc herniation.
As with other surgical procedures, operations aimed at addressing a herniated disc may result in possible bleeding, nerve injury, infection, hematoma or recurrent disc herniation, meaning that there is no complete guarantee that it will work.
Warm and cold gel packs provide inexpensive, fast and reliable pain and inflammation relief to most lower back, upper back and neck pain sufferers, including those suffering from a herniated disc. Experts and a few studies acknowledge their efficacy as an adjunct therapy for various types of body pains.
Do you have some tips on managing back pains? Hit us up if you want to share something or want to know everything about Magic Gel packs.