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How long can it take for herniated lumbar discs to heal without surgery?

How long can it take for herniated lumbar discs to heal without surgery?
3 minutes, 33 seconds

Up to 20 in every 1,000 U.S. adults suffer from herniated lumbar discs every year. Lumbar discs refer to the spongy tissue in between vertebrae in the lower back. They serve as cushioning between vertebrae and absorb shock in the spine.

When you continually place weight or stress on your vertebrae, your discs can break down and even rupture. A ruptured — also known as a herniated — disc can irritate the nerves located just below the tissue. As a result, a herniated disc can cause sharp and excruciating pain.

Other symptoms of a herniated lumbar disc can include: 

  • Weakness.
  • Numbness.
  • Intense lower back pain.
  • Leg pain that radiates down the sciatic nerve.
  • Pain that worsens from movement.

Most disc herniations happen in the lower lumbar spine, or within the five vertebrae in the lower back. Lifting heavy objects and repeating intense movements can lead to a lumbar herniated disc. Thankfully, the majority of people who develop a herniated lumbar disc can recover without surgery, but recovery time can vary from person to person.

Steps you can take to reduce recovery time from a herniated disc without surgery 

Your spine is an intricate and complicated collection of nerves, bones, and cartilage. As a result, herniated discs can take a long time to heal. About 90% of the time, pain caused by a herniated disc will go away on its own within six months without surgery. However, it commonly takes up to six weeks for lumbar discs to recover from herniation.

As your herniated lumbar disc heals, there are steps you can take to reduce how long it takes to heal without resorting to surgery. Some of the steps that can help you meet this goal include the following: 

  1. Limit bed rest.
    Old-school herniated disc treatments include weeks of bed rest, but experts no longer consider that a healthy or effective treatment. Most medical professionals recommend staying in bed for only a day or two before resuming activity. Gentle exercises can increase blood flow to your back and reduce feelings of stiffness.
  2. Do short stretches of activity.
    Doing too much activity right after you develop a herniated lumbar disc can further inflame and irritate your injury. Instead, you should aim to do short stretches of activity and follow them with brief periods of rest. Doing so can help you maintain mobility while avoiding worsening your injury and increasing your pain.
  3. Avoid heavy lifting.
    One study found that heavy lifting was a significant risk factor in developing a herniated disc. As a result, it’s a good idea to avoid lifting heavy objects until a medical professional clears you. If you don’t, you may end up increasing the severity of your injury and prolonging your recovery time.
  4. Go to physical therapy.
    Physical therapy is a key part of most conservative treatment plans for herniated lumbar discs. Physical therapists provide techniques and resources that can target the surrounding tissue of a herniated disc and boost its healing. Patients can therefore experience a faster recovery time. One study found that physical therapy exercises that targeted the lower back significantly improved the function and pain levels of a patient with a herniated disc. 

How can a physical therapist help treat your herniated lumbar disc? 

How long your herniated disc takes to heal without surgery can depend on your physical therapy treatment plan. Your plan can include the following techniques to help reduce your recovery time from a lumbar herniated disc: 

A physical therapist may start your treatment by doing a comprehensive evaluation of your back to confirm that your pain is caused by a herniated disc. The physical therapist can then build a personalized therapy plan designed to reduce your pain and recovery time. Physical therapists can even work with you in your home through virtual physical therapy options.  

Alliance PTP can help you find top-notch PT to address your herniated disc

Ready to decrease how long it takes for your herniated lumbar disc to heal without surgery? At Alliance Physical Therapy Partners, we’re proudly bringing together physical therapy practices across the country to help people get the high-quality PT they need. Want to see a physical therapist in person? We can put you in touch with an Alliance PTP partner that’s close to you and that can help you address your herniated disc.

Not keen on in-person PT sessions or not close to an Alliance PTP partner? No worries. We also offer effective and affordable virtual physical therapy through our Agile Virtual Physical Therapy platform. 

Contact our team today so we can help you find the most effective physical therapy services for your back. 

*Note: This article is a revision of one originally posted by Alliance Physical Therapy partner Rehab Access Physical Therapy.

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