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waiting it out - does it work, and how long

L5S1LL5S1 Posts: 51
Hi all,
From those of you who have had previous lower back surgeries, have you ever recovered from a herniated disc by "waiting it out" with conservative treatments. If so, how long did you wait until you were mobile and relatively pain free?
If "waiting it out" didn't work - how long did you try it before resorting yet again to surgery. Or, are you still waiting?


  • for at least five years. Then his back got much worse in quite a short time to the point he was in constant pain and was told he would be in a wheelchair within a year or so. We found a good neuro-surgeon and had to wait from October to June for the operation but it was so worth it! I think you just know when it is time after you have exhausted the non-surgical procedures.
  • I've been off work for 2.8 years when my back gave out and had L5s1 hd. but when my second MRI was done 18 months after I had herniated L5-S1 with annular tear was now not seen on my second MRI. However I still had pain and it showed DDD throughout my lumbar spine. I'm starting to get some pain relief now. I asked the Pain Management Dr. why I would have pain when my disc healed and she said there must be nerve compression maybe from the tear or discs narrowing which is why I still had sciatica. I saw 3 Surgeons and no one wanted to operate on me because the disc was only mild yet in contact with the nerve. I couldn't walk for almost a week then I stopped work.

    I talked with two people and one my next door neighbor who had back pain with a herniated disc that healed within 4 years but she was still able to work while in pain and now no back pain for her. She walks every day rain or snow to prevent the back from hurting or a relapse. Another person was a gasfitter and took her 4 years to be pain free without surgery.

    I hope yours heals in less time but if moderate or severe disc herniation it has to be watched. Best wishes and 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
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  • Hi L5S1,

    I herniated my L4-5 disc 37 years ago, at age 25. Didn't get treatment at the time and just waited it out, as you say. The acute pain faded after many weeks and I was left with a nasty backache every night from then until I found that sleeping on an air mattress I could get a good night's sleep.

    In the last 6-7 years I've developed degenerative scoliosis and MRI shows all of my lumbar discs to be flat. Just underwent a 2-level (L4-S1) lumbar fusion two and a half weeks ago because of nerve compression at L5 from the scoliosis.

    So, in answer to your question, I waited several weeks for the acute disc pain to resolve on its own, then I waited another 37 years until my lumbar spine was so messed up that I required surgery. I was uneducated on back issues for all those years and thought that there was little that could be done for a backache. I also had horrible leg cramps and a numb patch on one leg that developed after the injury. I asked doctors about both of those symptoms but every doctor said I had a pinched nerve in my hip causing the numbness on my leg. What's amazing to me now is that after 37 years, the numbness in my leg is almost gone! Who would have thought that a nerve which was compressed for so many years would come back to life after surgery!

    It was a long and painful road and I would strongly suggest to anyone to not wait that long to get treatment. At 25 years of age I doubt any doctor would have recommended surgery--I would have been treated conservatively and just watched. If I could do it over again, I would try to get treatment early as it may have saved me all those years of pain.

    2009 Foraminotomy C6-72010 PLIF L4-S1Multi RFA's, cervical inj, lumbar injLaminectomy L3-4 and fusion w/internal fixation T10-L4 July 17Fusion C2-C5 yet to be scheduled
  • Thanks for everyone's comments so far.

    Beaver, I'm glad your husband is feeling better now.
    Charry, I'm sorry that you're still in pain.
    Inchworm, it is amazing that the numbness is almost gone!
  • L5S1...I swear you are a mind reader.
    I've had 2 surgeries on this same level (as your user name) and I don't even know if I'm sure what worse is.

    I had a mirodiscectomy and then a revision about 5 months later (yes, we knew at 6-10 weeks post op that the surgery didn't work and I had to research the right thing). I'm now 9 months post op and doing better than the 1st surgery but not exactly as great as I had anticipated.

    I fully trust my doctor. He said if I get worse or start needing more pain meds, call. Hmm...what's worse? It's the million dollar question.

    I am better because I can now push up on my left toe (HUGE!!!) and rarely walk with a limp. However, still no feeling, still have the leg pain and bouts of back pain. I don't go a day not aware of the chronic pain but on the positive side, I'm feeling a little normal because I can walk my dog again, I can drive for an hour in the car if I have too. I can sit in a meeting without standing up after 15 mins and I generally can ignore my pain as long as I keep up on my regimine of tylenol and advil.

    I feel like "another surgery" is inevitable but I'm trying not to live my life that way.

    I use my husband and family to gauge if I'm being "too tough" and I'm also using my lousy insurance to help drive decisions. I'm capped out on my deductable so that's driving my desire to check in with my doctor since it's "free".

    I think it's worth talking to your surgeon every 8 mnths if things are status quo. If you don't think things are as good as they can get, speak up and ask what you can do to help. But be realistic...you already know the risks with surgery so you have to weigh those.

    I don't have any answers.
    I share your same question and am thankful you posted it.
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  • I spoke to my surgeon today. He is pushing surgery due to my lack of quality of life. However, I want to wait it out a bit more. Having spoken to him, I think I am still at the point where I can wait - although he doesn't think the disc will heal itself.
  • You know that your disc is herniated? It's not ruptured? A herniated disc is a disc that's still intact, just bulging. A ruptured disc has a tear in it and the disc contents are leaking out. A herniated disc can in some instances "heal" itself, whereas, a ruptured disc cannot. At least, that is my understanding.

    If you know from MRI or other tests that your disc is just herniated, maybe there would be a chance of it healing itself, but that doesn't mean it would necessarily happen in a short period of time. These things usually take months.


    2009 Foraminotomy C6-72010 PLIF L4-S1Multi RFA's, cervical inj, lumbar injLaminectomy L3-4 and fusion w/internal fixation T10-L4 July 17Fusion C2-C5 yet to be scheduled
  • The surgeon kept saying it herniated again, but from your description, I think it would be considered ruptured. I will call his office and ask. Thanks.
  • L5S1,
    Where that waiting time is advantageous only your surgeon would know and as we all differ if we have fully utilised conventional non invasive methods then only we can decide when that quality of life restriction, infer surgery would be more beneficial.

    If you have given every opportunity for things to change and you have had no improvement then your current condition is the most important factor in deciding the next step is and only you know if that additional waiting process is appropriate, waiting is not inactivity it is all part of the decision making process, we all think time is of the essence and nobody with hindsight would rush into the unknown without considerable evaluation of this predominantly irreversible process.

    You have to have maximum faith in knowing that you are ready for the next stage if appropriate, if the pain and restriction impacts sufficiently on your lifestyle more than doing nothing, we all deflected surgery in the hope of not having to take that leap of faith into the unknown.

    If you keep in context the realistic chance of improvement fro surgery then the future will be fine, irrespective that our ingoing expectation are not always matched by the reality of surgery and you may have to accept less pain as the maximum benefit.

    Take care and good luck.

  • Inchworm, to clarify: It seems that a herniated disc and a ruptured seem are the same. Maybe you were referring to a bulging disc vs a herniated/ruptured disc.

    John: I wish were more statistics out there so that I could make a more educated decision about how much time to wait it out.

    "only you know if that additional waiting process is appropriate" - Maybe this is true emotionally, but not physically! I guess what I want to know is how long is a decent period of time to wait and what percentage of herniations repair during that time.

    But I agree - many times it reaches a point when you emotionally feel like you've "had enough" and you're ready to take the leap into surgery.

    At this point what prevents me the most from just doing the surgery is exactly your point - that it's not a guarantee to be pain free. Thankfully after my two discectomies I was pain free. Since I'm currently pain free when I'm prone, I'm scared to give that up and perhaps be stuck with a nerve entrapment or something else that will leave me with chronic pain every minute of the day.
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