lifestyle changes

Lifestyle Changes Required in case of a Herniated Disc

Essential lifestyle changes for people suffering from painful herniated disc

What is a herniated disc? What causes a herniated disc?

Before we see the lifestyle changes and the precautions to be taken, let us understand the problem first. 

Each disc of the spine is designed much like a jelly donut. As the disc degenerates from age or injury, the softer central portion can rupture (herniate) through the surrounding outer ring (annulus fibrosus). This abnormal rupture of the central portion of the disc is referred to as a disc herniation. This is commonly referred to as a “slipped disc.”

The most common location for a herniated disc to occur is in the disc at the level between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae in the low back. This area is constantly absorbing the impact of bearing the weight of the upper body. This is especially important when we are standing or sitting. The lower back is also critically involved in our body’s movements throughout the day, as we twist the torso in rotating side to side and as we hinge the back in flexion and extension while bending or lifting.

Herniated disc facts

  • The discs are pads that serve as “cushions” between the vertebral bodies, which minimize the impact of movement on the spinal column.
  • Each disc is designed like a jelly donut with a central softer component (nucleus pulposus).
  • Abnormal rupture of the central portion of the disc is referred to as a disc herniation.
  • The most common location for a herniated disc to occur is in the disc at the level between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae in the low back.
  • If the disc herniation is large enough, the disc tissue can press on the adjacent spinal nerves that exit the spine at the level of the disc herniation.
  • The physical examination, imaging tests, and electrical tests can aid in the diagnosis of a herniated disc.
  • Depending on the severity of symptoms, treatments for a herniated disc include physical therapy, muscle-relaxant medications, pain medication, anti-inflammation medications, local injection of cortisone (epidural injections), and surgical operations. 

What are the lifestyle changes required for a herniated disc?

The human body is comprised of about 60% to 70% water, making hydration a vitally important part of a healthy diet. Incorporating a small but one of the most significant lifestyle changes is drinking water which allows nutrients to travel to the major organs in the body, helps remove waste, and helps maintain function in the joints, organs, or other structures in the spine.

Proper hydration is also important specifically for the spine and back. For instance, intervertebral discs consist largely of water—at birth, discs are about 80% percent water, although this usually declines with age. Keeping the body well hydrated is important to maintain the good health of the spinal discs. Drinking enough water also helps with sustaining or reaching an optimal body weight, which can ultimately improve back health.

The typical recommendation for a healthy diet includes at least 8 large glasses of water every day. Medically, there is no hard and fast guideline for how much water should be consumed each day, but it is advised that water should account for at least half of a person’s daily fluid intake. Additionally, it is important to distribute water consumption throughout the day rather than drink only when thirsty.

Exercise Regularly

One of the most important lifestyle changes that are good for our body is exercise. Getting enough exercise is critical for many reasons. When it comes to the back, exercise provides the double benefit of helping injuries heal faster and helping prevent a recurrence of back pain.

Movement through gentle, controlled exercise stimulates a flow of nutrients within the spinal structures that facilitates the healing process. For example, physical activity causes the intervertebral discs to swell with water and then expel it, a process necessary to allow the exchange of nutrients between the discs and other spinal structures. Movement also stimulates muscle, ligament, and tendon activity to maintain spinal integrity.

If physical activity and gentle exercise is lacking, the spinal discs are deprived of the nutrients and movement they need to stay healthy and functional.

A focused exercise program—usually guided by a spine health professional—is a critical part of almost any back pain treatment. Most exercise programs include a combination of stretching, strengthening, and low-impact aerobic exercise. For people who do not have back problems, exercise is important in order to reduce the risk of developing back problems in the future.

Avoid Smoking

Nicotine intake and tobacco use are harmful in many ways, affecting various structures and functions in the body. Smoking can increase the risk of developing back pain and interfere with the body’s natural healing processes, including tissue and bone formation.

See Does Smoking Cause Low Back Pain?

Nicotine has been shown to undermine the fusion process after spine fusion surgery by inhibiting bone growth. Spine fusion surgery is an extensive procedure, and people who choose to have this surgery to address their severe, ongoing back pain should quit smoking to have the best chance possible of allowing the bone to fuse and the spine to heal.

Avoid Cola Consumption

Phosphoric acid is unique to colas (both regular and diet colas) and will bind to calcium and magnesium in the digestive tract. Regular consumption of phosphoric is associated with lower bone mass density (BMD).

Avoid Excessive Alcohol Consumption

Regular alcohol consumption has been determined as a risk factor for increased bone loss. Reducing consumption is again one of many lifestyle changes that must be incorporated if you have orthopedic problems. One study found that women who regularly consumed alcohol had a greater risk of bone loss later in life when women are already at increased risk for osteoporosis.

Alcohol lacks nutritional value and adds unneeded sugar to the diet which can contribute to weight gain and obesity, further complicating back problems. It also has negative effects on the internal organs, especially the liver, and should only be consumed in moderation.

Additionally, alcohol acts as a depressant and can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety that many experience with chronic pain. The relationship between chronic pain and depression is well-documented but not fully understood. Many healthcare professionals recommend that treatment for one should coincide with treatment for the other. More research is needed to establish effective pain and depression management options for those who experience both.

Reduce Salt Consumption

Sodium and chloride, found in table salt, increase urinary calcium excretion before it can be properly absorbed and utilized by the body for strong bones. Unprocessed Himalayan or sea salts contain many trace minerals that play a role in bone health and are a better option.

Temper Caffeine Consumption

Caffeine from coffee, tea, and soft drinks may lead to bone loss if the right amount of calcium is not consumed. High levels of caffeine intake have been shown to correspond to significant loss of bone density in elderly women, with genetics also being a factor in bone loss.

 Including Calcium

Calcium is the most common mineral in the body, primarily found in bones and teeth. It is essential for maintaining the bone mass necessary to support the skeleton. The body is also constantly using calcium in muscle and nerve functions as well as to carry out functions in the heart. Most calcium is lost through normal bodily processes in the kidneys and colon, with minor amounts lost through sweat and the shedding of hair, fingernails, and skin.

If a person’s diet does not include enough calcium to replace what is used, the body will pull from the stored supply of calcium in the bones, weakening them and increasing the risk of fracture. It is estimated that only 32% of adults in the U.S. receive enough calcium from their diet alone, and even with dietary supplements most people still do not receive adequate calcium intakes.

Dietary Sources of Calcium

Another most lifestyle changes that must be applied is eating a diet that includes adequate amounts of the following nutritional foods, a healthy level of calcium can be maintained through diet alone and without the use of supplements:

  • Dairy products (yogurt, cheese and especially milk)
  • Dark green leafy vegetables (spinach, broccoli and kale)
  • Beans and peas (tofu, peanuts, peas, black beans)
  • Some types of fish (salmon, sardines)
  • Other foods rich in calcium (oranges, blackstrap molasses, almonds)

What are symptoms of a herniated disc?

The symptoms of a herniated disc depend on the exact level of the spine where the disc herniation occurs and whether or not nerve tissue is being irritated. A disc herniation may not cause any symptoms. However, disc herniation can cause local pain at the level of the spine affected.

If the disc herniation is large enough, the disc tissue can press on the adjacent spinal nerves that exit the spine at the level of the disc herniation. This can cause shooting pain in the distribution of that nerve and usually occurs on one side of the body and is referred to as sciatica. For example, a disc herniation at the level between the fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae of the low back can cause a shooting pain down the buttock into the back of the thigh and down the leg. Sometimes this is associated with numbness, weakness, and tingling in the leg. The pain often is worsened upon standing and decreases with lying down. This is often referred to as a “pinched nerve.”

How do health care professionals diagnose a herniated disc?

The doctor will suspect a herniated disc when symptoms described above are present. The neurologic examination can reveal abnormal reflexes. Often pain can be elicited when the straight leg is raised when lying or sitting. This is referred to as a “positive straight leg raising test.” There can be abnormal sensation in the foot or leg.

A variety of blood tests are frequently done to determine if there are signs of inflammation or infection.

Plain film X-rays can indicate “wear and tear” (degeneration) of the spine. They do not, however, demonstrate the status of discs. In order to determine whether or not a disc is herniated, an MRI scan or CT scan is performed for diagnosis. Sometimes a CT myelogram is used to further define the structures affected by a herniated disc. A CT myelogram is a CT that is performed after contrast dye is injected into the spinal canal. This allows for better visualization of the discs in certain cases. An electromyogram (EMG) can be used to document precisely which nerves are being irritated by a disc herniation.

What is the treatment for a herniated disc?

Occasionally, disc herniation is incidentally detected when a test such as an MRI is performed for other reasons. If no symptoms are present, no particular treatment is necessary.

Depending on the severity of symptoms, treatments for a herniated disc include physical therapy, muscle-relaxant medications, pain medications, anti-inflammation medications, local injection of cortisone (epidural injections), and surgical operations. In any case, all people with a disc herniation should rest and avoid reinjuring the disc. Sometimes, even people with relatively severe pain early on can respond to conservative measures, including physical therapy with an exercise regimen, epidural cortisone injection, and/or oral cortisone medication, without the need for surgical intervention.

What are home remedies for a herniated disc?

Apart from the above-mentioned lifestyle changes, home remedies for disc herniation can be very effective in relieving the pain. These include over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) as well as the application of heat and ice. Alternating heat and ice is very effective for pain relief for many people. Activity modification is also important, which includes avoidance of activities that aggravate pain and may worsen the nerve impingement. Bed rest and complete inactivity are unnecessary; they hinder recovery and are not advised.

Please let us know if you have any questions and do leave a comment

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