Understanding what happens when you have a herniated disc in the lower back and how to start relieving your symptoms, it helps to have a basic understanding of how your spine works.
Between your vertebrae, the stacked bones in your spine, you have discs — medical professionals refer to these as lumbar discs — and they provide crucial cushioning for your lower spine as you go about your daily activities.
A lower back hernia happens when a lumbar disc becomes squeezed or pinched and starts to protrude, sometimes causing sharp pain. Nerves in the area can also become compressed. The herniated disc may or may not also be ruptured.
Orthopedic surgeons say that roughly 80% of the American population will have an episode of lower back pain in their lifetime. Low back disc herniation is one of the top two causes, the other being degenerative disc disease.¹
If you’re currently suffering from herniated disc pain, it may be encouraging to know that a research trial comparing treatment methods among 500 people found that patients in both the surgery and the nonoperative treatment groups improved substantially over a two-year period.² In the majority of people, a herniated disc will heal itself within six weeks.³
As for right now, if you’re not exactly sure what a lower back herniated disc feels like or what different treatment options exist (both surgical and non-surgical), keep reading to learn more.
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It might be difficult to identify the exact cause of your lower back herniated disc. You might get a herniated disc by using the improper form to lift something heavy — you accidentally forget to lift with your legs and engage your back more than your leg muscles.
Twisting or turning awkwardly simultaneously as you lift can also contribute to disc herniation.
Sometimes, people get herniated discs by falling on their back or experiencing other traumatic impacts.
The most common reason for a herniated disc is age-related wear and tear, medically known as disc degeneration.⁴ As you age, your discs become more vulnerable to tearing or rupture.
Depending on your family history, you could have a greater likelihood of experiencing a herniated disc.
Being overweight can increase the odds of straining or stressing the discs in your back.
Line of work
If your job demands intense physical activity with a lot of repetition and lifting, that can put you at higher risk for a herniated disc.
Tobacco smoking speeds up disc degeneration. Those who quit smoking are found to have less low back pain than those who continue to smoke, even when disc degeneration has already occurred.⁵
Bulging disc pain in the lower back can present as a burning or stinging feeling, and you might even get these unpleasant sensations in your legs as well as your back. You’re likely to feel pain the most acutely when seated because sitting increases spinal compression by up to 40%.¹
Though a herniated disc can be intensely painful, some lower back disc hernias will not cause significant pain (and may only get discovered while investigating another issue that calls for a full-body MRI).³
Frequently used treatment methods for relieving herniated disc pain include:
You may be able to get inflammation and pain relief by icing or using a heating pad on your lower back twice a day. If you can lie down on your stomach, you may wish to apply hot or cold therapy with a pillow placed below your hips for support. Set a 10–15 minute timer while using heat or ice to relieve your pain so that you won’t overdo it — the last thing you want on top of a herniated disc is frostbite or a heating pad burn.
Alleviating pressure and resting
Doctors tend to suggest going about light daily activities rather than staying completely immobile, but there may be times when rest is the wisest option, especially if you’re in a lot of pain. Bed rest would only ever be advisable for one or two days maximum. One way to relieve pressure on your lower back is to take what’s known as the psoas position.⁶ It involves lying down on your back and resting your legs on a supportive platform while they’re bent at a 90-degree angle.
Working with a physical therapist can play an important role in recovering from a herniated disc. They may help alleviate your pain through things like transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (more commonly known as TENS therapy) which can help relieve muscle spasms or tensed muscles in the lower back. A physical therapist can also help recommend exercises that increase your core strength and stability to help prevent a herniated disc recurrence.
OTC pain medication
A mild herniated disc can often be relieved quite effectively by over-the-counter, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or naproxen.
Several different injection therapies provide effective short-term pain relief for a herniated disc, sometimes using a local anesthetic or via steroid medication that reduces inflammation.
Your doctor will usually try the above-herniated disc treatment methods that are less invasive before suggesting surgery. Procedures to treat a herniated disc are largely successful. However, it will take you roughly 4–6 weeks to recover, and you will need physical therapy afterward to optimize your recovery. A 2015 study analyzed 39,048 patients who had lumbar disc herniation surgery (microdiscectomy, endoscopic microdiscectomy, or laminotomy with discectomy), with79% experiencing good to excellent results.⁷
According to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (AANS), you should seek immediate medical attention if you have any of these symptoms in addition to lower back pain:⁸
Severe abdominal pain
A fever over 100.4℉ (38.0 ℃)
Lost bowel or bladder control
Both operated on and non-operated patients with disc herniation are known to improve. A few things you can do to prevent a herniated disc include working on your core strength, maintaining good posture (especially when lifting anything heavy), cutting out cigarettes for good, and managing your body weight so you can avoid putting any excess pressure on your lower back.
Lumbar disc herniation (2017)
Disc herniation | NCBI Bookshelf
Herniated disk - symptoms and causes | Mayo Clinic
Slipped disc: Non-surgical treatment options | NCBI Bookshelf
Low back strain and sprain – Symptoms, diagnosis and treatments | American Association of Neurological Surgeons
6 Tips for relieving pain from herniated discs | Achieve Therapy and Fitness
Herniated disk in the lower back | Ortho Info
Herniated disk (slipped, ruptured or bulging disk) | Cleveland Clinic