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Herniated lumbar disc - recovery time

Harmonic MinorHHarmonic Minor Posts: 31
edited 05/13/2014 - 9:21 AM in Lower Back Pain

Hello all,

Late last year, I suffered an injury to my lower back which was 'diagnosed' by a doctor as simply a back strain that would go away quickly with some stretching, and he advised keeping active and playing sport. This I did and my condition got much better, I was able to play sport and run within a couple of months like before, but I still had pain, especially an almighty stiffness in the morning. It felt good to play sport and run, and the discomfort was mostly when sitting or when lying for a long time. I am 18 years old.

However, my condition worsened in mid-March (just over 3 months after initial injury thereabouts) after a weekend of heavy sport and I had clear signs of sciatica in my left leg. Losing faith in the doctors and my GP, I went to a chiropractor who diagnosed a herniated disc, I think L-5 S-1, although he said it is relatively minor. I didn't go for an MRI. That was 4 weeks ago. I got treatment twice a week, then once a week now it will be once a fortnight as I seem to have made good progress.

I am wondering how long a disc injury like this may take to heal so I can begin playing sports again? I have asked my chiropractor and he just says 'when it is better - don't rush it', but is it possible to aim for a certain amount of time? It has been 4 weeks and my condition has improved a lot. The sciatica died down within a week of treatment (it was bad on the first day, very inflamed too) but I still have it now - and I get worried because I expect it to disappear any time but it doesn't seem to. I get a twinge in my calf and hamstring from time to time, although I appreciate it could be a lot worse. Some days I don't feel it at all, so when I do start feeling it, I panic, and think it might be getting worse. I think most of all I fear a relapse, and just want it to get better.

It does feel much better overall, I have less trouble with my mobility (easier to put socks on, get in and out of bed, far less stiff in the morning) and the pain is very bearable, and I never took pain killers. At this very moment all I can feel is a twinge at the bottom of my left calf. I can walk fine, although it does get a little uncomfortable. My chiropractor does a leg raise which shows there is much less nerve impingement (raises very nearly as high as my right when lying down) and I can bend forward a fair bit without much pain. Initially my chiropractor said 6-8 weeks with no sport but I don't think I could physically run at the moment. I'm hoping to be better in 4-6 weeks and be able to play sport again, but is this too ambitious?

I get very paranoid (considering I have been suffering with back problems for around 5 months now), and I know my condition could be much worse with this type of injury, but based on my symptoms is it likely it is only minor? Can a more serious disc injury also have mild symptoms? When I first got sciatica I actually woke up with it, and it was 2-3 days AFTER I played any sport, so it was not something sudden, and I didn't feel my back 'go'. Am I simply getting too far ahead of myself and expecting the sciatica to disappear completely too soon? When and how does sciatica generally begin to disappear? What sort of signs shall I look for, in general? And what should I avoid doing to make it worse (apart from sport, impact exercise and lifting of course). At the moment I ice it around 4 times a day, generally after I do some exercises my chiropractor gave me. I usually walk about 3 miles a day too. Lying down on a firm mattress on my side is very comfortable (tends to alleviate symptoms if I have any at that point) and I sleep okay. Sitting can get quite uncomfortable (although I am used to keeping my back straight by now) - although can certain types of chairs be bad for this?

I really hope I can make a full recovery without any complications and would love to be able to play sport in the next month or two as summer is coming. I have been active all my life and would dread not being able to play sport and run like I used to. Thank you very much for reading and good luck to everyone with these back problems!



  • As you can see, many people have read your post but no one has answered so far. It might be because you have asked about 30 questions that do not really have an exact answer! First, none of us really have a clue what is causing your pain and I don't see how your chiro does either without any imaging studies. Chances are it is a disc problem but you could also have a spondylolisthesis (a slippage) that could not be diagnosed without X-ray. We will assume you do not for these purposes, and that you have a bulging disc....

    First, a herniated disc can come on very slowly -- so slowly that the patient thinks he has pulled a muscle or maybe strained something while doing some everyday activity. Very few are actually one of those "A HA" moments where you KNOW you have injured yourself.

    For now, while you are trying to get the disc to heal and the nerves to calm down, I would suggest you avoid any activities that involve bending, or extending you back, twisting, lifting and reaching (like stretching overhead to get something out of a high cupboard), Avoid anything that jars or vibrates the spine. Drink LOTS of water. If you can, several times a day lie flat on the floor, no pillow, or a teeny one under head if you must, knees bent with feet flat on floor. Put your arms out to your sides close to your legs with palms facing up. Breathe deeply and let all your muscles really let go and relax. Do this for about 5-10 minutes at a time. This position is a type of "traction" that allows the soft tissue surrounding the spine to let go and for the discs to unload. It helps the discs to escape the push of gravity for a little while and it is overall very beneficial.

    I cannot say how long you need to wait...give it as long as you can. And then please try to start SLOWLY back into your sport and activities. Don't go from being barely able to walk to running a mini-marathon, for example. Slowly increase your activities...and back off at the first sign of a flare up. Keep using ice and hopefully you'll be back on your feet in no time!

    An injured disc can heal on its own. The time involved depends on the severity of the injury, how your body functions, how young you are (definitely in your favor), etc.

    The problem for some people who are physical active and play sports, work out, etc., that think they are in terrific shape, is that they often have overly developed part of their body to the exclusion of another part. After a disc problem, it is important to work very hard to evenly develop the core muscles that support the spine -- those on the back as well as those on the front. With a disc problem it is easy to unconsciously favor one side of the body, which quickly evolves into a lop-sided situation.

    Regarding other things you can do: it is important to be aware of learning and using good body mechanics at all times. Work on maintaining "good" posture, both while standing and sitting. If you sit at a computer for long hours, be sure your work station is well designed...again so you can maintain good posture while seated. Overstuffed furniture is not the best place for you to sit. Try to limit car trips for now. If you must drive or ride a long distance, try to get out and stretch often.

    Otherwise you just need to be vigilant about what you are doing -- probably things you used to take for granted. The worst things a person with a disc problem can do is anything that involves a twisting motion while you are also pulling or pushing. As a matter of fact things like raking, gardening and pushing a vacuum are not great on the back!

    The sad truth of the matter is that if a person plays contact sports in their younger years, they will probably pay the price in decades to come. The back is not designed to withstand impact.

    So, I hope I gave you a few answers to your questions. Good luck. I hope you heal quickly and can get back to doing the activities you love.
  • I thik your Dr should order an MRI for a diagnosis. I would also get an Ortho referral. There is also things the Pain Management Dr can do to help you speed up your recovery of the herniated disc. I would also take caution in returning to rough sports without strengthening your core muscles and using a lumber support while doing these sports to protect your back and prevent a possible reinjuring. It's been 14 months I've been out of work after finding the source of my pain being herniated L5-S1. After having my 5th epidural and facet joint injections I've just walked around the block without my cane. The 2nd block my foot was giving me problems so I took my cane. So I've had a herniated disc 14 months without surgery and just now think I'm making a recovery but I still feel unable to work. Everyone heals at different times. Everyone is unique. I found this website helpful but also read his disclaimer. www.chirogeek.com None of us are Drs and can only give you our experience in healing. A Dr usually does the right thing for your healing but it's good to remind them if you feel you need something like an MRI and a EMG. Good luck. Charry
    DDD of lumbar spine with sciatica to left hip,leg and foot. L4-L5 posterior disc bulge with prominent facets, L5-S1 prominent facets with a posterior osteocartilaginous bar. Mild bilateral foraminal narrowing c-spine c4-c7 RN
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  • Yes, sorry about all the questions. But I feel I have so many, especially due to the uncertain nature of this injury! I just wish I could know for certain that this injury will heal, and in good time, but I guess I just have to wait and hope and prepare myself mentally for it.

    Well my chiropractor said in our first session after examining me that he thinks it's a minor herniated disc, stating that he couldn't 'see anything else that could cause the symptoms'. I've done a fair bit of reading around the topic and suggested to him the possibility of piriformis involvement but he seems pretty sure it's a disc.Ah so is spondylolisthesis something different to a herniated disc? Because I see some people referring to it as a 'slipped disc' - is this a problem with the positioning of the spine/disc? My chiro gives me the impression he knows what he's doing and has treated these before, and my progress has been quite good so far. He makes it appear straight forward but I tend to worry about it and wish I could know more about the details of my recovery!

    Yes - he said the disc could be bulging 'like a tire' or perhaps have a small crack in it, but he doesn't think it's anything major. Yes I see, it did come on gradually and I thought it something entirely muscular at the time. I'm kicking myself because I knew all about herniated discs but the doctors I had seen before were quick to rule out any disc involvement without a proper examination or scan.

    Thanks you very much for the suggestions and advice, gwennie =). At the moment I do three exercises, generally three times a day, 15 of each. The first I lay on my back, knees bent as you described, and slowly move my knees (rolling hips gently) to each side, pausing for a second at the bottom. The second I lay on my stomach, arms under chest and push myself up gently and pause for a second at the top. Third is on all fours, extending right arm/left leg and vice versa horizontally. I always ice after doing them.

    Yes I will get back into activities slowly, and if I ever make it to the other side and beat my back pain I'll surely be very kind to my back from now on!

    Do you think it is necessary for me to get an MRI, charry? I would certainly like to, but I don't know if my doctor will send me for one. The only doctor I'm seeing right now (for treatment) is the chiropractor, I didn't go back to my GP - I kinda lost faith in their service. And I hear MRI's can be pricey, or you have to wait months. What sort of things, to speed up recovery? My chiro just says I can encourage it to heal by not exerting myself or rushing it.

    I'm very sorry to hear about your injury, and wish you luck with your recovery.

    I think what is worrying me most is the sciatica. It has always been quite mild and I don't know if I'm imagining that it's getting worse. I've mentioned it to my chiro but he said he didnt see any signs of worsening and that it is improving, so much so that he has made the sessions once per 2 weeks (since I saw him Tuesday this past week). It just seems that my condition got better quickest in the first 2-3 weeks and ever since then it's been slowing down, and I expect the sciatica to go (and sometimes it IS/WAS absent), but then it kicks in.

    Right now I can feel it at the bottom of my calf, a tingling, almost like an itch. And in general today it has been irritating me in my hamstring, and especially right at the base of my glute. I went for a walk and it felt completely normal in the first 5-10 mins or so and then I felt it kick in slightly in my hamstrings, but it didn't get worse from then on. It seems either I have the pain in my back (to the left, just above my buttock) or it's in my leg. To be fair I can't remember exactly how bad the sciatica was at first, but I don't think it has improved that much.

    Maybe I should stop using the scaitic pain as a reference for the recovery process? Is it always likely to be problematic during the healing process? It's just if my leg is hurting, that means the disc is still bulging enough to touch and irritate the nerve.

    I think an MRI would be a good idea. I'll mention it to my chiropractor when I next see him, depending on my condition then.

    Thank you both for your posts
  • I would encourage you to see your regular GP and get an MRI. I would also get a 2nd opinion from an Ortho or Neuro Dr and your GP can order that. Also I take lyrica for the tingling and if I didn't have meds I would be off the deep end. An Ortho or Neuro has more experience than a Chiro and I would see one maybe for another reason but for a bulging disk you need to take caution. It's always good to have a 2nd opinion. Take care. Charry
    DDD of lumbar spine with sciatica to left hip,leg and foot. L4-L5 posterior disc bulge with prominent facets, L5-S1 prominent facets with a posterior osteocartilaginous bar. Mild bilateral foraminal narrowing c-spine c4-c7 RN
  • I'll definitely consider seeing a GP, and I'll see how my condition is in a week or two. Shall I simply book an appointment with the GP and say 'I want an MRI' and 'I want to see a Neuro?' because it seems there's no guarantee getting either while my symptoms are mild.

    Speaking of teagling right now I've started getting a tingling in my foot, which I have never had before, at least not to this degree. Although calf and hamstrings feel okay. How come I need to take caution with a chiro for a bulging disc? I appreciate the advice to get a second opinion, I will definitely consider it! Thanks. But is the sciatica generally not a good way to measure how well the disc is healing?

    EDIT: definite tingling/ pins and needles in left foot now, getting really worried =(
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  • You'll find that many of us on the board are not big fans of chiropractic. It can be dangerous to be treated when the source of your pain is unknown. Without further imaging, your chiro does not know what is going on in your spine. At best, he is "guessing" based on his training and experiences with other patients.

    Sciatic pain is not necessarily related to a disc herniation or other disc injury. There are other reasons for sciatic pain, which is a symptom of a problem in the spine, such as stenosis or spondylolisthesis.

    The tingling in your foot is a sign of nerve compression. Is it on the outside of your foot? Big toe? Little toe?
  • Spondylolisthesis is not a problem of a disc. It is when one vertebra slips forward in relation to the adjacent vertebra. It can be a condition one is born with; it sometimes develops in late teens, early twenties, especially among gymnists, divers and others who spend a lot of time bending backwards with their back in extension...and it can be a result of degenerative conditions.

    You may have heard people talking about one vertebra slipping over the adjoining one -- but it is not a "slipped disc." It can cause a basic instability to the spine. It can cause a narrowing of the spinal canal which usually results in a compressed nerve or nerves.
  • My whole left foot seems to be tingling, as well as the heel. It's not so prominent in the toes, but if any big toe. I have never had this before, and my whole body doesn't feel right, and I'm shaking. I tried to go to sleep but I'm having trouble doing so. I have no idea why, I didn't do anything out of the ordinary today. I'm getting really panicky now and don't know what to do - is there anything I might do now that might make it worse? I think I'll have to wait until monday til I can see a doctor. I just can't see what could have happened, my recovery seemed to be going well. =( I've looked into spondylolisthesis and that does sound a possibility - but can a condition like that worsen suddenly, if misdiagnosed?

    Thanks for your advice!
  • Yes -- try not to panic. When you do, your muscles will become tighter and it will make your symptoms worse. Chances are extremely good that you are not in any medical emergency. Pain from any sort of back pain can feel like the end of the world, but the only medical emergency associated with a lumbar problem is when there is bladder or bowel involvement. If that were to happen, you would want to contact your doctor right away, or go to the emergency room if you cannot reach the doctor.

    I suppose it is possible that a condition like spondy could suddenly worsen, but it is not likely or common. I suppose a vertebra could suddenly shift and it could pinch a nerve but I would be surprised if that's what is happening with you.

    By the way, tingling and/or numbness is not an emergency. It is scary when it happens, but it is a symptom that something is amiss. Probably half the people on the board have tingling at any given time!! One simple simple diagnostic test any doc will give you is to walk across the exam room on your toes, and then back on your heels. Can you do that?

    I think maybe you're having a little panic attack from being worried. I would suggest that you lie flat on the floor, no pillow, or, if you must, a very small pillow under your head, knees bent, feet flat on floor. Arms close to the body with palms facing upward toward the ceiling. Concentrate on your breathing -- try to make it slow and deep and "follow" the breath in and then back out. Train all your attention on your breathing. Try to lie there for about 10 minutes at a time. This is a form of natural traction that helps the muscles and soft tissue around the spine to relax -- and it allows the discs to unload. I do this whenever my back starts to bother me.

    Try not to worry. I think you're getting worried from everything you've read on the board. For most people sciatic pain comes and goes and does not develop into anything worse.

    Hope you're able to get some sleep.

    xx Gwennie
  • I managed to get some sleep last night although not much, woke up quite early. It feels much better this morning although the sciatica still feels somewhat abnormal - a little bit of the tingling in my foot/bottom of calf. I can walk across the room on my toes and heels fine. I tried relaxing and it definitely helps. =)

    I'm feeling so terrible at the moment, I've had these back problems for what seems like an eternity and I can't even say for sure what the matter is! Summer is like a month away too and I can't even run =(. Problem is I can't see a doctor until Tues, being a bank holiday tomorrow.

    Strangely my back feels okay, it's just the sciatica acting up. My mobility (getting in/out of bed, moving around etc) is definitely better than 4 weeks ago. The sciatica as I said was first most in hamstring. Then it dropped off and was pretty mild (couldn't feel if lay down). Then last week it was mostly a mild burning in the calf. Now it's moved down to the foot! Could this mean anything? Could it just be a slight hiccup in the healing process? I really hope so.

    Thank you for your support. Oh and Happy Easter! x
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