Disc Problem? 3 Things Your Doc May Not Be Telling You
Before we hop aboard the disc herniation train, let’s figure out just what the heck a ‘disc’ really is?
Let’s first close our eyes and envision ourselves on a tropical island holding a pina colada…Now let’s replace that tropical island with a car, and you’re holding a steering wheel, not a pina colada (sorry I was loving it to). Now you are riding around and there are a MILLION potholes and bumps in the road. But the ride is still very smooth because you have GREAT shocks in your car. Now these shocks are soft, adaptable, and great for absorbing all the shock from the bumpy road. And just like all shocks in cars, if you are ALWAYS on a bumpy road, your shocks will wear out quicker.
Intervertebral Disc 101
So how does this relate to my discs? And how do I get that pina colada?
If we think of our bodies as a car, our discs ARE the GREAT shocks in our cars. Well, at least they start off GREAT and over time they become not so great, if they are not looked after. That’s why it is up to us to take care of them just like we service any parts of our cars. If I told you, you had been driving a car for 30, 40, or 60 years down the bumpy road of life without ‘really’ getting a tune-up or oil change, you would probably have guessed that the car will start breaking down at a rapid rate. Not just the shocks would wear out, also your tires, alignment, suspension, etc. The difference with our bodies, is we can’t just go to the guy at Goodyear and have them give us some new parts. We only get one chance at keeping our spine and discs healthy throughout the years. And just like the shocks in your car, the wear and tear cannot be reversed without getting new parts. And more often than not, the new parts we buy for our cars or for our spines (i.e. surgeries), usually aren’t as good as the original factory model parts. The point being, we have one body given to us to take care of, so don’t mess it up.
So let’s move on now that we know all about car parts. Your spine has vertebrae, which are the individual bones that make up your spine. In between these bones, are soft, malleable discs, called ‘intervertebral discs’. They are responsible for most of the movement of our spines. Picture them as soft jelly doughnuts that are between each hard bone. And just like a jelly doughnut, there are two layers. Layer one is a jelly substance, which is in the inside of the disc, and layer two is the outer layer around the jelly substance. This outside layer keeps the disc ‘jelly’ secure and in the center.
When these soft ‘jelly’ doughnuts (aka your discs) take on too much STRESS, the inside of the ‘jelly doughnut’ can start to push out in any direction. This is referred to as a ‘disc herniation’. Envision a jelly doughnut being squished between two hard bones. When the jelly substance on the inside of the dis, breaks through to the outer layer, that is when it is deemed a ‘disc herniation’.
Trauma and Stress, What You Know About That?
Obviously, the more stress and trauma put on the disc, the further the disc can ‘push out’. And when we say ‘stress’ we don’t just mean the kind of stress you get when your husband doesn’t do the dishes like he said he would, we mean physical stress to the body. This physical stress is referred to as trauma. And ‘trauma’ can be really BIG all-at-once, such as the trauma our bodies endure in a car accident.
Trauma can also be little by little, day after day, with repetitive things we do that aren’t good for our spines. This would be things like sitting at a computer in the same position for hours and hours every day for years. It could also be from lack of movement, stretching and exercise over the years, which can also cause unneeded stress to the spine and body. This gradual stress over the years is referred to as ‘microtrauma.’ Remember, every time you sit, the weight of your spine along with gravity applies pressure to ALL of your discs. And of course, if you are not sitting properly, stretching, or moving, this pressure adds up faster than you think.
When the disc ‘jelly’ pushes out from the center, this doesn’t seem like a big deal at first, but over time this only gets worse, just like anything we don’t take care of. The center jelly substance will continue to push out more and more. This is because we are mostly doing the same things every single day that got us to this point. Sitting at our computer, picking up the kids the same way, having the same bad posture everyday, staring at our technology, etc. Cue car example, if the car isn’t ‘serviced’ properly and the issues are ignored, rest assured the parts that you are having problems with (i.e. discs) will continue to wear out, more rapidly year after year.
What About Normal Wear and Tear?
And besides the disc trauma you had, there’s a little thing called degeneration (arthritis) that is forming to protect this injured area. And to answer your next question, NO! Arthritis is not normal at a very young age. Our spines go through a natural aging process like anything, but the key is to stay active and healthy and this process should not be taking place for decades from now. I’ve had patients walk into my office that were 25 years old with the spines of 55 year-olds and 65 year-olds walk in with the spines of a 30 year-old. In most all cases your spine has a direct relationship with your lifestyle and the way you have taken car of it over the years (i.e. exercise, stretching, diet, rest, stress relief, yoga, chiropractic, etc.)
The issue we have with the disc ‘pushing out’ is that is pushes out and puts pressure on the structures around it. Yep! You guessed it! NERVES! This is the most frequent and common thing that a disc presses against. In some cases, it can put direct pressure on your spinal cord itself. Now, rewind to middle school science class, the nerves from your spinal cord control EVERYTHING in the body, of course you remember that. Like EVERYTHING…Seriously. Your brain and spinal cord use these nerves to coordinate and control every function of your body. Everything from digestion, to circulation, to respiration, to your muscle movement, sensation, literally EVERYTHING!
So How Does All of This Cause Pain?
So I don’t have to tell you how important it is that we avoid pressure on our nerves, because the pressure on these nerves can also cause PAIN…No Thank You, I’m Good. We can allow these discs to heal by proper rehabilitation, diet, exercise and other lifestyle changes. And certainly the most important thing is to give your body TIME to heal. So remember, these discs in your spine can have MAJOR issues, but you will not notice it until the pain comes. But often times, the damage has already been occurring for years before the pain comes, so do yourself a favor and get proactive with your health. Just like a car that is breaking down, you want to be PREVENTATIVE! Don’t wait for that check engine light to annoy you before you service the it, you get your tune-ups done every 3-5,000miles. So why don’t we treat our bodies the same way? Just an fyi, stiffness, tightness, pain, discomfort, etc. are your body’s many different check engine lights, don’t ignore them!
Did you know that close to 90% of people that walk around with NO PAIN, have disc issues that they are not even aware of? This is associated with NO Trauma! It’s literally from wear and tear and lifestyle choices that the disc becomes unstable and dehydrated. And get this, the discs in your spine go through a healing process on their OWN in 8-12months. That’s not technically a short timeframe, so of course as impatient, busy people in this crazy world, meds and surgery seem like a nice quick fix and much easier than doing things naturally.
Obviously nothing is perfect, but the disc will heal as best it can and the swelling will decrease, which means less pain and pressure on our spinal cord and nerves. Which thus means better health and wellness long term. However, we have a responsibility to push it along the healing path with better lifestyle choices. Cue tropical island again, remember your body is a car, right? If you get a flat tire, yes you can keep driving for a while, but don’t you think more problems with the care will arise? Same thing with your body, if there’s an issue, the longer we ignore it and keep doing the same thing, the bigger our bill at the mechanic, or doctor. Makes sense right?
SO NOW WE GOT DISC ANATOMY 101 OUT OF THE WAY, LET’S MOVE ON TO WHAT EXACTLY YOUR DOCTOR MAY NOT BE TELLING YOU…
Your Disc CAN Heal Naturally
Say What?!?! You mean my “slipped disc”, “disc herniation”, “disc protrusion”, “sequestered disc”, “whatever the heck my doctor just said”, CAN HEAL?! YES, YES, YES you heard that right. Our bodies are self-regulating, AMAZING masterpieces that are created to heal and endure.
Remember that time you were 6 years old and scrapped your knee and thought you had to go get stitches? Me neither, but the point is, this cut you had on your knee HEALED on its own. Imagine that! Our body will attempt to heal the best it can, in any scenario. This applies to ALL tissues and systems of your body. Your disc is soft tissue, so just like all soft tissue in the body (i.e. muscles, ligaments, tendons, etc.) they CAN & WILL heal.
Guess What? There’s no quick fix to living a healthier life…
Nothing against your family doctor, but more often than not, your doctor will tell you it CANNOT heal because some are hoping you are impatient and want the ‘quick’ way out with surgery and medications. And some doctors are honestly just not very knowledgeable in this train of thought. They mean well of course, but sometimes docs have a hard time thinking ‘outside the box’. Yes, these ‘quick’ methods can relieve pain short-term, but in the long-term the root of the problem is still there. The disc needs proper movement, and the spine and muscles around it all need to be maintained properly and strengthened.
Yes, in some extreme cases, surgery is needed, but the average disc injury due to a trauma or ‘wear and tear’, CAN and WILL heal on it’s own over time. Of course we need to help it along with good lifestyle choices and MOVEMENT. Simply getting the latest cushion for your office chair or stretching once a week probably isn’t going to keep your disc healthy. You need lots of good stretching, exercise, proper posture, an anti-inflammatory diet, hydration, chiropractic care and the list goes on. But that doesn’t sound easy at all! I think I’ll opt for the super quick surgery to heal all my terrible lifestyle choices LOL. Just remember, if having an active lifestyle and being holistic and healthy were easy, everyone would do it.
You CAN Exercise & Be Active
My favorite thing to hear is when patients come for treatment and say they CAN’T do something because a doctor told them so, or they researched their condition on Google! LOL If we listened to all the naysayers in life, no one would be doing anything incredible, we’d all be inside our own bubbles. There’s an old saying my mom used to say, “CAN’T NEVER COULD!”
Now before we go on, YES, there are some extreme cases where becoming an Olympic athlete might be out of the question, but let’s be honest, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE in this world. We live in a day and age where people with no legs run Olympic races and people with no arms become body builders. I saw a video the other day of a man with no arms painting masterpieces with his feet…How many doctors told that Olympic athlete that he could never run again or told that painter that it would be impossible to paint without his hands? I say again in case you didn’t hear me the first time, ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.
Anything is possible, as long as you GET MOVING!
ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE including exercise and MOVEMENT…you don’t have to go to crossfit (I definitely don’t) or even a gym for that matter, just get out and MOVE: walk, swim, hike, stretch, etc. Yoga is one of the most beneficial things you can do with a disc injury (get medically cleared and ask your doctor first, and please start with gentle yoga if you get the green light). And in addition to this, as time goes on, you can add other things into your lifestyle. Remember that lady you saw who was one hundred and something years old and she moved like she was 60? Or that guy you saw on the news that is still running marathons at age 85? Or your great grandmother that is 98, who your family just can’t seem to get her to stop and rest and stop worrying everyone.
What do all these people have in common? They never, ever stop MOVING! They move, move, move all the time! Movement is life. And like I said, no gym membership required, no bulky weights, just good old-fashioned activity. But Dr. Josh, I am 65 years old so it’s too late for me…NOPE, NOPE, NOPE. It is NEVER too late to get moving. Join a yoga class, go on walks, stretch, get out in nature and hike. If you are consistent and persistent you might be amazed at how good you feel after 6months of moving more. Movement is what keeps our discs hydrated and healthy long-term. Not to mention it improves your circulation and helps give you more natural energy. Any doctor that tells you otherwise is your cue to RUN for the hills!
Your Life IS NOT Over
So have you learned anything today? Your spine sure hopes you did. If you learned anything I hope it is that your disc injury is NOT a ‘death sentence’. A disc injury doesn’t mean you need to run and find the closest wheelchair and cancel all your yoga memberships. YES, of course there are going to be extreme cases that might limit you from certain activities. You don’t want to take your disc injury to a desk and sit there for 20 hours straight daily. Or maybe becoming a MMA fighter with your new disc injury might not be the most brilliant idea.
You want to understand and educate yourself on what is good and bad for the disc and add and subtract some things from your lifestyle that contribute to your health. That sounds simple enough right? For example, add movement, subtract sedentary lifestyle. Add yoga & meditation, subtract useless anxiety & stress. Add stretching, subtract couch potato Saturdays. Yes, yes, I already know, you don’t have time to move, right? With the kids, job, and the stress of life it is just not possible, right? WRONG!
You make time for Candy Crush, make time for your health…
We make time for the things that are important to us. If we like Facebook and Candy Crush, we certainly will devote time to it. If we like smoking cigarettes, we certainly find a lot of time to enjoy it throughout the day. If our health and wellness depend on it, we will also devote time. We will set the alarm an hour earlier, we will skip the pasta at lunch followed by the usual nap, and order a salad and walk around the building instead. We will do home exercises and stretching with our spouse after the kids go to bed. We will go on a walk instead of binge watching Netflix. I’ve seen patients with the worst spine injuries, do more and move more than my patients with perfect spines. I’ve seen single moms of 3 find time to fit exercise in their busy work schedule, because she refused to make excuses.
It’s really easy to list the excuses why we can’t do something. There are certainly enough hours in the day to do anything you want, health and wellness just need to be a top priority. If I told you your nice car you just bought would breakdown soon if you don’t start servicing it and you would have to fork out thousands for a new one, wouldn’t you start servicing it? And I’m sure you would find time to bring it into the shop wouldn’t you? Why don’t we do this with our body? We know it is breaking down, the warning signs are all there (pain, discomfort, stiffness, tension), we are reading all the same articles on Google, but we continue to ignore it and make excuses. We know what we have to do, but we don’t do it. Well I’m here to tell you, your body needs to be SERVICED! NOT next year, like right now!
So once again our bodies DO HEAL. With a little tender, love, and care followed by some time, life does go on. And sometimes you might even AMAZE yourself at the things you can do with a ‘disc injury’. And you will certainly be amazed at how many naysayers you prove wrong. And sometimes those naysayers truly have your best interests in mind, like your doctor, but just aren’t educated enough and have enough experience with disc injuries. And they are just people like you and me, that don’t know everything. As a doctor myself, I only started out knowing what I learned in school, but it wasn’t until I treated disc injuries in my office and experienced a few myself, that I truly understood them. There certainly is a time and a place for surgery and medications, but it should never be our first line of defense. So the next doctor that pencils you in to their busy surgery schedule, tell him to grab the eraser cause you want to try things naturally first, PEACE OUT DOC!
Don’t Believe Me? I Found Out First Hand with My Own Spine…
P.S. STILL DON’T BELIEVE ME? That’s cool, it took me some convincing too. I was diagnosed with 7 herniations in my neck and 2 herniations in my low back from a horrific car accident I was in in 2009, and I was told I ‘could not’ exercise and ‘needed’ surgery and pain pills. Then after a couple of years and a LOT of exercise, good diet, and chiropractic care I unfortunately was in another car accident. They did a second MRI and it was amazing to hear that one of my ‘herniations’ wasn’t even visible anymore and the others had healed significantly. BELIEVE THAT? I didn’t either until I saw it. Here’s a picture of my accident below! Crazy Stuff!
Life is short, take care of yourself and your spine, and get MOVING! NO EXCUSES!
Dr. Joshua R. Huddleston
Disclaimer: because you know we have to write one…
Obviously Dr. Nichole and I are physicians, but we’re not YOUR physician and if you have any aches, pains or injuries, it should be managed by your health care professional. NEVER start an exercise or stretching program without consulting with your Doctor first. Get it?! Got it?! Good!
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