Do Herniated Discs Worsen Over Time?
A herniated disk is a relatively common back problem that is often caused by an injury. A skilled spine surgeon will attempt to pursue other treatments besides surgery if possible. Surgery may be immediately recommended, however, depending on the severity of your condition and how long it has been herniated. Here is a look at herniated disks and if they get worse over time.
What Are Herniated Discs?
A herniated disc is a condition in which pressure on the spinal column causes a portion of a disc to break through its outer casing. Doctors call this the posterior annulus. It happens when there is too much pressure on the disc from the inside and not enough support from the outside. The disc is a spongy-type material that acts as a cushion between the bones in your spine and the spinal cord.
The disc is made up of two parts: the nucleus pulposus and the annulus fibrosus. The nucleus pulposus contains water and is the soft center of the disc. The annulus fibrosus is the tough, outer layer surrounding the nucleus. The end of the disc closest to the spinal cord is called the disc’s posterior side. That’s where the disc bulge is likely to occur.
Do Herniated Discs Get Worse Over Time?
Herniated discs, if left untreated, are likely to worsen over time. Discs that herniate are not likely to get better on their own, and they are also likely to progress and worsen over time. Studies show that people with a herniated disc that has not been treated are 2/3 more likely to have a recurrence of their symptoms than those who have undergone an operative procedure.
A herniated disc may worsen in a few different ways:
- The herniation itself may cause a segment of the spine to become unstable and degenerate, leading to degenerative disc disease.
- The pressure from the herniated disc may cause nerve root impingement, leading to significant pain and decreased function.
- An untreated herniated disc may lead to a ruptured disc, which often requires surgery.
Seek the help of a back doctor if you suspect a herniated disc, as intervention may be needed to keep the condition from getting worse.
How Do You Know if a Herniated Disc Will Worsen Over Time?
You can tell if a herniated disc will worsen over time by looking at your disc’s type. Discs come in different varieties, and each one has a different prognosis (or outcome) with regard to whether the disc will herniate again.
Type I Discs
Type I discs are the “younger” discs within the spine. They are generally more pliable than other disc types and are likely to herniate only once before stabilizing. Because they do not degenerate like Type II and Type III discs, they are less likely to worsen over time.
Type II Discs
Type II discs are the “mature” discs within the spine. They do not return to their original shape after a herniation. This disc will likely degenerate and worsen over time, even if it is treated surgically.
Type III Discs
Type III discs degenerate at a very rapid rate, making them highly susceptible to herniation. Like Type II discs, Type III discs are unlikely to improve after a surgical procedure.
When Should You Have Surgery for a Herniated Disk?
You should have surgery for a herniated disc if you have significant pain that does not respond to conservative treatments, such as anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy, or if your symptoms are causing you to experience a significant loss of function. However, you should also have surgery for a herniated disc if your disc is likely to worsen over time.
While it is possible that your symptoms could improve significantly over time without surgery, the chance of them getting worse is much higher. If you are unsure whether or not surgery is right for you, you should speak with your doctor about whether waiting and observing your condition is a viable option.
Other Treatments Before Surgery for a Herniated Disk
If surgery sounds intimidating but you are still concerned that a herniated disc is likely to worsen, there are other treatments you can consider before taking the plunge into surgery. Conservative care for a herniated disc can often help people avoid surgery and its inherent risks.
Physical therapy is a commonly recommended treatment for a herniated disc. While there is little research available regarding the effectiveness of this treatment, it is generally thought to be helpful for managing pain and increasing mobility. Additionally, anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen sodium (also known as Aleve), are also commonly prescribed before surgery for a herniated disc, especially if the person has significant back pain.
While these treatments do not provide a long-term solution, they can help you avoid the risks associated with surgery. You should consult with a spine specialist to determine which treatments are best for you.
Get Help Fixing a Herniated Disc From an Expert Spine Specialist
A herniated disc is a serious medical problem, and while there are options to relieve pain in the meantime, you need to get it looked at as soon as possible. Our spine surgeons and back doctors at Orthopedic & Laser Spine Surgery are leaders in their field, offering minimally-invasive procedures for complications such as herniated discs. These procedures offer faster recovery times than traditional procedures, reducing your pain and helping you achieve a better quality of life.