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Slipped Discs Dont Have to Ruin Your Life

By Dr. Scott E. Rosenthal

Herniated or “slipped” discs can stop even the strongest among us in our tracks. Pain shooting down an arm or a leg as well as numbness and/or the sensation of pins and needles can be debilitating. Muscles may also weaken, causing a foot to drop or hand to lose grip strength.

If you suffer from a disc problem, chiropractic care offers an alternative to treatments such as surgery, spinal injections and opioid drugs that often come with serious side effects, high costs, and longer periods of disability.

What exactly is a disc herniation? Picture an ice cream sandwich that is being bitten on one side with the frozen middle squishing out of the other side. The ice cream represents the disk and the cookies would be the bones. Once herniated, the disc can move into the space between the spinal bones where the delicate nerve exits. Symptoms may be localized or may travel to the upper or lower extremities.

Research performed at the University of Zürich in Switzerland found chiropractic care to be quite helpful and safe with patients suffering from pain caused by disc herniation. The study reported:

  • A large proportion of patients with symptomatic, MRI-confirmed, lumbar disc herniation reported statistically significant improvement as early as two weeks after the start of chiropractic care.
  • The percentage of patients reporting improvement continued to increase up to three months after the first treatment and then stabilized up to the one-year point.
  • More than 80 percent of chronic lumbar disc herniation patients who had symptoms over three months reported “improvement” at three and six months and one year after receiving chiropractic care.
  • There were no adverse events reported due to chiropractic care.

Spinal injections are commonly used to treat back and neck pain, even when the validity of the procedure is questionable. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA):

“Injectable corticosteroids are commonly used to reduce swelling or inflammation. Injecting corticosteroids into the epidural space of the spine has been a widespread practice for many decades; however, the effectiveness and safety of the drugs for this use have not been established, and the FDA has not approved corticosteroids for such use. We started investigating this safety issue when we became aware of medical professionals’ concerns about epidural corticosteroid injections and the risk of serious neurologic adverse events.”

Although some may report that injections have helped them, I am concerned that too many patients consent to this procedure before trying the far less invasive approach offered by doctors of chiropractic, a concept supported by research.

Another study looked at how chiropractic spinal adjustments compare to nerve root injections for patients with symptomatic, MRI-confirmed, lumbar disc herniation. The group receiving chiropractic care had a higher percentage of improvement with lower costs. Unlike those in the injection group, none of the participants in the chiropractic care group required surgery.

Over 250,000 people elect to have back surgery (lumbar microdiscectomy) to remove the portion of the offending tissue. This procedure can provide relief, but due to the risks, experts agree that it should be used as a last resort. With a direct annual cost of approximately $5 billion, or $25,000 per patient, consumers and health insurers would agree that any viable alternative not only makes sense, but can save serious dollars and cents!

A study published in the Journal of Manipulative and Physiological Therapeutics compared chiropractic care to lumbar microdiscectomy surgery for sciatica caused by a herniated disc. Hearing the results would make any sciatic patient stand up straight – and run straight to the chiropractor.

60 percent of the patients who were considered surgical candidates improved EQUALLY with chiropractic care as those who received surgery.

The research also found that the patients who eventually needed surgery had equal results, even when the surgery was delayed by undergoing chiropractic care first. The study's authors concluded that chiropractic care should be considered as a first line of care for herniated lumbar discs that cause sciatica.

With the effectiveness, low cost and safety of chiropractic, why are so many people still undergoing surgery? A recent study looking at nearly 2,000 state workers from Washington State over a three year period found an answer. It’s not about why or what, but where you go first!

  • 43% of workers who saw a surgeon first got surgery
  • 1.5% of workers with the same condition who saw a chiropractor first got surgery

Modern chiropractic technique provides care that is more comfortable than ever. Besides the decrease in stress and anxiety by avoiding surgery, the cost-savings with chiropractic is substantial. It is believed that if chiropractic is utilized first, it will save nearly $3 billion each year. Presently, chiropractic is covered by nearly all insurance plans, including Medicare and part of Medicaid. Although most plans allow the patient to go directly to the doctor of chiropractic without referral, most chiropractors are happy to communicate and coordinate care with your primary care physician.

Having a disc herniation is a leading cause of pain, disability and loss of quality of life. Many treatment options exist with varying costs and risk. With the supporting evidence, safety and lower cost, it makes sense to start with chiropractic. Research shows that you have nothing to lose by trying it first and everything to gain!


J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2014 (Mar);  37 (3):   155-163

J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2013 May;36(4):218-25

J Manipulative Physiol Ther 2010 33:576

Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 2013 May 15;38(11):953-64.