Conservative treatment — mainly avoiding painful positions and following a planned exercise and pain-medication regimen — relieves symptoms in 9 out of 10 people with a herniated disk.
- Over-the-counter pain medications. If your pain is mild to moderate, your doctor may tell you to take an over-the-counter pain medication, such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) or naproxen (Aleve, others).
- Narcotics. If your pain doesn't improve with over-the-counter medications, your doctor may prescribe narcotics, such as codeine or an oxycodone-acetaminophen combination (Percocet, Oxycontin, others), for a short time. Sedation, nausea, confusion and constipation are possible side effects from these drugs.
- Nerve pain medications. Drugs such as gabapentin (Neurontin, Gralise, Horizant), pregabalin (Lyrica), duloxetine (Cymbalta), tramadol (Ultram) and amitriptyline often help relieve nerve-damage pain. Because these drugs have a milder set of side effects than do narcotic medications, they're increasingly being used as first line prescription medications for people who have herniated disks.
- Muscle relaxers. Muscle relaxants may be prescribed if you have muscle spasms. Sedation and dizziness are common side effects of these medications.
- Cortisone injections. Inflammation-suppressing corticosteroids may be given by injection directly into the area around the spinal nerves. Spinal imaging can help guide the needle more safely. Occasionally a course of oral steroids may be tried to reduce swelling and inflammation.
Physical therapists can show you positions and exercises designed to minimize the pain of a herniated disk. A physical therapist may also recommend:
- Heat or ice
- Electrical stimulation
- Short-term bracing for the neck or lower back
A very small number of people with herniated disks eventually need surgery. Your doctor may suggest surgery if conservative treatments fail to improve your symptoms after six weeks, especially if you continue to experience:
- Numbness or weakness
- Difficulty standing or walking
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
In many cases, surgeons can remove just the protruding portion of the disk. Rarely, however, the entire disk must be removed. In these cases, the vertebrae may need to be fused together with metal hardware to provide spinal stability. Rarely, your surgeon may suggest the implantation of an artificial disk.
Jan. 28, 2014
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