When you are suffering from sciatica due to a herniated disc, it is absolutely reasonable to ask about how long is will take to heal that herniated disc. You may also have questions about whether you can heal a herniated disc without surgery or not.
The aim of this article is to answer all your questions about healing from a herniated disc, whether surgery is really needed and what to do to speed up herniated disc recovery time.
Aims of this post:
- To discuss who might or might not need surgery for their sciatica
- To give you a rough idea as to how long it should take your herniated disc to get better
- To teach you the TRUTH about herniated discs in the spine
- To teach you about the different types of surgery commonly offered for herniated disc problems
Herniated Disc – How Long to Heal? – And Is Surgery Always Needed?
Herniated discs are a very common cause of sciatica. It is estimated that a problem with the discs of the spine is to blame for over 70% of cases of sciatica.
What are the spinal discs?
Let’s first recap on what spinal – or intervertebral – discs are and the job they do within the spine. Discs are the shock absorbers that sit between the bones in the spine (vertebrae). They are ring-shaped and are made up of two distinct parts.
The first part is the outer ring, called the annulus, which is made up of tough cartilage and proteins packed into strong layers. Within this sits the inner part of the disc, called the nucleus, which is a jelly-like liquid that provides nutrients to the vertebrae and lubrication during spinal movement.
This nucleus moves around within the annulus as we move, and plays a key role in allowing us to bend and lean as we go about our day.
At each level of the spine, exiting the spine near where the discs sit, are the nerve roots. These nerve roots will become the nerves that supply sensation and movement to the limbs and the rest of our bodies.
What is a herniated disc?
A herniated disc can also be known as a “slipped disc” or “protruding disc”. The most significant version of this injury occurs when the inner disc material actually escapes from the outer layer (annulus) of the disc.
If you sustain an injury to the annulus of your disc, the nucleus can push on the weakened area and protrude outwards. This is called a disc bulge. When the nucleus actually leaves the annulus, this is called a herniated disc.
This will probably surprise you, but – it is possible to have a herniated disc and know nothing about it!
A lot of the time, a disc bulge or herniated disc can be completely pain free. However, if this herniated disc touches on one of the nerve roots that we spoke about earlier, you can develop the symptoms of sciatica.
You can read all about the symptoms of sciatica in my Ultimate Guide HERE.
How does a herniated disc cause leg symptoms?
Usually, when you get a herniated disc, the symptoms of your sciatica will reflect the particular nerve root within the spine that the disc bulge is irritating.
Note that this does not necessarily mean that you will get your symptoms at the exact level of the herniated disc… Let me explain.
When you sustain a herniated disc at level L4/L5 (second from bottom disc) in the spine, you may get an irritation of the L5 nerve root, which exits at the level of your disc problem.
However, due to the effects of gravity, if any material has leaked out from your disc at L4/L5 it will travel downwards within the spine. This means that you may get symptoms reflecting an irritation of the S1 nerve root (just below the base of the spine) due to the inner disc material having traveled south within your back.
This may affect your herniated disc and change how long it takes to heal.
It is also possible that the inflammation that appears in our spine when we suffer a disc injury irritate the nerves above and below the injury too.
The presence of these inflammatory chemicals is likely to increase the time it takes your herniated disc to heal.
This video provides a great explanation for how a disc bulge can cause sciatica:
Why am I suffering from a herniated disc??
Try not to worry or blame yourself!
Usually, it isn’t that you’ve done anything wrong!
Reason #1 – Repetitive stress
Often, there is a pre-existing weakness in the annulus of one of your discs, caused by repetitive micro-trauma over time through repeated actions and just living your day-to-day life. This can then lead to a disc bulge and then a herniation over a period of time.
To learn how to avoid repetitive stress in the workplace and allow your disc bulge to heal while you work, click HERE.
Reason #2 – An Accident
Sometimes, an explicit event can cause your disc herniation when the spine is moved in such a way as to cause a sudden increase in the pressure within one of your discs, causing a tear to occur in the outer disc.
This is often the case in car accidents, or during poor lifting techniques (e.g. trying to pick up a huge weight from the floor while twisting).
Reason #3 – Genetics
There also may be genetic factors to explain why you are suffering from a disc herniation and the associated symptoms of sciatica.
This is because some people are born with less fibers in the annulus of their disc. This predisposes their discs to weakness, and makes a disc injury or bulge through repetitive strain more likely.
It’s important to say here that we shouldn’t stress about the genetic factors relating to our sciatica! We can’t change our genetics, and it is thought that overall herniated disc healing time isn’t overly affected by our genetics.
Can a herniated disc heal without surgery? And how long will it take?
In short, the answer is absolutely YES.
We think that the actual statistic for how many disc herniations recovery naturally, provided the body is optimised for a short herniated disc recovery time, is 90% of people recovering within 12 weeks.
Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and some people remain in pain past the 12 week mark.
What to do if your herniated disc hasn’t healed after 12 weeks
If this sounds like you, make sure you are doing everything you can to maximize the chances of your body recovering naturally from the herniated disc.
When a person successfully recovers from a herniated disc, the body is able to clear any “debris” from the injured area through clever cells in the blood stream.
The inner disc material is able to return to the nucleus within the disc over time. The annulus then “knits” back together, allowing the disc to return to a healthy state.
I have written a complete guide on how to minimize herniated disc recovery time in my complete guide to recovering from sciatica naturally – you can get more information on how The 7 Steps to Overcome Sciatica can help YOU HERE. It is worth noting that, during the healing process, the herniated disc is quite vulnerable to a re-injury for up to 6 weeks.
However, this sense of vulnerability can remain for quite some time after. A large part of the reason for this is due to subconscious fear of a re-injury.
When is surgery required for a herniated disc?
Some people with a herniated disc will require surgery if their disc is not healing for any number of reasons.
The surgeries that are chosen will usually aim to “decompress” the nerve root that is being touched and irritated by the herniated disc.
Most of the surgeries involve taking away some of the disc or a piece of bone within the spine to allow the affected nerve root to move, glide and send messages more freely.
The names of these surgeries include “microdiscectomy”, “lumbar decompression” and “laminectomy”.
These surgeries are reserved for people who have seen next to no improvement during a reasonable recovery time period.
After surgery, herniated disc recovery time periods can range from 6 to 12 weeks, to longer in more complex cases.
However, during these time periods, the amount of activity you are allowed to perform is far more limited than during the average herniated disc recovery period without surgery.
How long can herniated disc recovery time be without surgery?
There is no simple answer to this question.
Everyone is different and it is difficult to tell who is going to improve very quickly, and who will have a long, drawn-out herniated disc recovery time.
What’s even more confusing is that the severity of the disc herniation is NOT a good predictor of herniated disc recovery time! Some people have TERRIBLE herniated discs but recover within weeks – while others have a small disc bulge and take months, even years to fully recover.
However, as a rough guideline I would expect a recovery to follow this pattern in an absolutely “typical” individual:
|When?||Stage of recovery|
|Day 1||Disc injury occurs – OUCH!|
|Week 1||In lots of pain, struggling to get to work or get comfortable at home. Probably feels like you want to cut your leg off.|
|Week 2||Starting to take the right pain killers, this helps a bit. Work is a killer, leg still extremely painful.|
|Week 4||Starting to improve slightly after making appropriate lifestyle changes, optimising diet and using the specific exercises to my individual problem.|
|Week 6||Feeling significantly better. Feeling like you can get through a day at work without too much pain in the evening. Still very wary of your back.|
|Week 9||Leg is much better but back still stiff. Trying to get that last bit of movement back now. Terrified of the thought of swinging a golf club again.|
|Week 12||Through practicing methods in order to regain normal function, you’re seeing an improvement in confidence. You feel ready to go back to the things you love but know you need to still be cautious for a while.|
As you can see, recovering from a herniated disc is not a quick thing!
It is likely to dominate your life for a few weeks – but that’s OK. Get it right here and you are less likely to suffer with a recurrence later on.
Remember, everyone is different in terms of herniated disc recovery time. I have seen patients who feel no better after 12 weeks of treatment, and I have seen patients who report being 90% better after one week. This statement still stands when you compare the initial severity of each of these cases.
Herniated Disc Surgery
Surgery is occasionally required when your leg pain fails to settle after 6-12 weeks of treatment. You may also require surgery if you are experiencing any of the “red flag” symptoms that can indicate a more serious nerve compression. These symptoms include (but are not limited to):
- Bladder and bowel problems (like incontinence or not being able to “go”)
- Numbness in the saddle region
- Severe loss of strength in the legs
In all cases you should get a professional opinion from a doctor or physical therapist specific to your personal circumstances.
The surgeries that are offered to people whose bulging disc recovery time exceeds what is expected are as follows:
- Microdiscectomy: Where a small part of the offending disc is removed in order to decompress the affected nerve.
- Laminectomy: Where a part of the vertebral bone in the affected level called the “lamina” is removed, in order to create more space for the disc in hope that the bulge will not compress so heavily on the nerve root.
- Spinal fusion: Where the disc is removed and the vertebrae above and below the offending disc are fused together through use of rods and screws.
Is there anything I can do to speed up my herniated disc recovery time?
In most people, it is indeed possible to accelerate your herniated disc recovery time through lifestyle changes. I have attempted to cover these lifestyle changes through the information on this website.
However, if you would like a complete guide to the changes you need to make, including an innovative way to pick the exercises that will actually help to speed up bulging disc recovery time, simply click this link to read about how The 7 Steps to Overcome Sciatica can help you.
I hope the information in this article has helped to clear up a few things about whether or not a disc herniation can recover naturally through conservative measures or whether surgery is needed. If you’re worried about your symptoms or have developed a new episode of sciatica, it is always advisable to be assessed properly by a qualified medical professional.
If you have found the information within this page useful or informative, by sharing this article with a friend or on social media you can help someone else make a better decision about their recovery from sciatica, too.
Through better information about how we recover from sciatica, I feel as though more people will be able to avoid unnecessary surgery, which would be a fantastic outcome!
Remember to comment below if you have any thoughts or questions about any of the above! Thank you so much for reading, I really appreciate your time.