What Happens if a Herniated Disc Remains Untreated?

Emma Reed blog

Herniated discs are a troublesome yet common part of growing older. Adults as young as 35 can experience these discs, especially if they have poor posture or are overweight, but they also occur in professional athletes. Though the symptoms of herniated discs are easy to ignore at first, they will gradually grow worse until they start to have an impact on your everyday life.

There are a few types of herniated discs that can occur. Cervical herniated discs occur in your neck, and the symptoms tend to impact your arms. Thoracic herniated discs occur in your upper back, and lumbar herniated discs are in your lower back. If you’ve herniated a disc in your back, you will mostly feel the symptoms in your legs.

Herniated discs are not the worst type of back injury you can sustain, but prompt treatment is necessary to prevent additional complications and damage. An experienced licensed chiropractor can examine you using x-rays, CT scans, and other techniques to determine the location and extent of the damage.

Early Stages

The first signs of a cervical herniated disc is typically tingling or numbness in the arm, which may radiate down into the hands. You may also feel pain the neck whenever you bend or twist your neck a particular way. In a severe case, your fine motor skills may be reduced. The exact severity and location of symptoms may vary, so it’s essential to consult with a licensed chiropractor when trying to identify the source of neck and arm pain.

For thoracic and lumbar herniated discs, the same symptoms can appear in the legs and feet. Thoracic herniated discs are less common than lumbar herniated discs, so if you’re feeling tingling or numbness in your legs, the culprit is probably in your lower back.

Serious Complications

For all types of herniated discs, serious and permanent nerve damage is a possibility in extreme cases. Severely herniated discs can eventually begin to impede your range of movement throughout the affected limbs. This, in turn, can affect fine motor skills, or even your ability to walk. Lumbar herniated discs can eventually cause severe nerve problems that cause you to lose control of bowel movements. The longer you ignore the problem, the more likely it is that your ability to move your body will be impeded.

Ignoring pain from herniated discs can also cause you to subconsciously alter your posture, causing long-term damage to other joints. This can create a “domino effect” where wear and tear on your body escalates and is not easily reversible.

How Long Can I Wait?

Herniated discs can worsen in a matter of weeks, especially if you work in manual labor. Waiting more than a month for treatment can seriously increase the time you need to recover. The longer you wait, the more likely it is that damage to your posture or other spinal discs can occur.

If you have numbness or tingling in your arms or legs, it’s best to go see a chiropractor as soon as possible. While the cause may not be a herniated disc, numbness and tingling can often only be properly addressed by a chiropractor.

First Steps to Treatment

Once the location and severity of the herniated disc is determined, a chiropractor will determine short-term and long-term treatments for your pain. Pain relief methods, including heat and ice, can be recommended. Over-the-counter pain relievers are usually an option, and in severe cases, you may even prescribed stronger pain medication.

Your chiropractor will come up with exercises and stretches you can do to improve the condition of your spine, allowing your disc to heal without causing further damage. Since it’s also important to allow your disc time to heal, make sure you follow your chiropractor’s instructions closely without trying to do too many exercises at once.

Though repairing the disc can take weeks or months, the effort is well worth it. Herniated discs are fixable, and simply tolerating the pain without treatment can cause long-term damage. By communicating clearly with your chiropractor, you can fix an existing herniated disc and help prevent future problems.

Emma Reed has a background in Psychology (B.A.) and Medical Anthropology (M.S.) and writes for a variety of medical publications. Her passion is making cutting-edge medical information accessible to a wider audience, and her work often examines the intersections of sociology, anthropology, and medicine.