3 long-term risks of spinal disc herniation

Home » 3 long-term risks of spinal disc herniation

Many patients we see think that a herniated spinal disc is a temporary injury that will go away with time.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Sometimes, a herniated disc can cause long-term damage to the spinal nerve nearby.

In this blog post, we will discuss three of the most common risks associated with a herniated spinal disc.

Can a herniated disc cause permanent nerve damage?

Yes, a herniated disc can cause permanent damage to the spinal nerve if not treated properly, or the herniated disc material cannot return back to the disc center. When the disc herniates, the compression can damage the outer ‘myelin sheath’ of the nerve root.

If the nerve is compressed for too long, it can become permanently damaged and never regain its normal function.

herniated disc model showing damage
degenerative disc disease can weaken the tissues of the disc and vertebral joints

Long-term risks of spinal disc herniation

  1. Weakness at the target muscles of the compressed spinal nerve
  2. Numbness in your leg or hand, risking other injuries like burns and cuts without knowing
  3. Chronic pain, which can mean you feel back/neck pain for a long time or permanently

How does the intervertebral disc affect your nerves?

The intervertebral disc acts as a cushion between the vertebrae in your spine. It helps you to move your back freely, and it’s a spacer for the nerve roots to exit your spinal cord.

Usually, the disc and nerve live in a harmonious way, nearby to each other. But over time stress can build on the disc for a range of possible reasons, from bad posture to excessive lifting, or incorrect shoes.

When the outer tough ligament ring of the disc (annulus) is broken down and weakened, the softer inner core of disc (nucleus) is prime to be squeezed out. This can happen during a heavy lift, for example, or a sneeze or cough, when the pressure in your spine increases.

disc model showing the annulus outer layer
disc model showing the annulus outer layer of a Lumbar spinal disc

Because of the proximity of your spinal nerves to the new herniation, there is often pressure on the nerve straight away. If the bulge is severe enough, you may even have numbness and/or leg muscle weakness (for a Lumbar disc protrusion) as well as pain.

Sciatica is one problem that may result – sometimes to the point of actual disability.

Learn about treating sciatica with acupuncture or dry needling, and what the difference is.

Disc injuries mostly heal themselves if they’re not too severe. However, if the herniated nucleus material gets ‘stuck’ outside the disc, this can cause big problems.

This is known as disc sequestration – a common reason for surgical discectomy or microdiscectomy.

Does numbness from a herniated disc go away?

If the herniated disc has been pressing on a nerve for a long time, you may experience numbness in the related area of your body for years, or even permanently. Many people do recover some feeling in the numbed area, depending on how long and intense the nerve compression was.

This happens because the nerve sheath (myelin) can repair, but very slowly.

This study explains how the nerves that make myelin – oligodendrocytes – are susceptible to the oxidative stress of inflammation, which can easily damage them.

This might also explain the accumulation of damage and chronic pain, weakness and numbness that comes with a long-term disc problem.

myelin sheath

My herniated Low back disc still hurts after a year

If you’re still experiencing pain after a year, the disc herniation has either

  • not been able to heal properly and return inward
  • calcified outside the disc area causing pressure and/or inflammation, or
  • inflammation is still present due to poor spine biomechanics

It’s also possible that the annulus (the tough outer ring of ligament) has been damaged and is not healing correctly. This study shows that when there is damage to the annulus, it alters how nerves respond to pain signals.

If you’re still in pain after a year, we recommend seeing a spine orthopedic specialist to get a diagnosis and treatment plan.

A herniated disc is a serious injury that can cause long-term problems if not treated properly. Encouragingly, this study explains how physical therapies like physio, chiropractic, etc can aid the natural healing processes of your disc herniation.

In severe and non-resolving cases of pain and dysfunction, surgery might be considered.

Have you had a spinal disc herniation that resolved, either on its own or surgically? Tell us about your experience below.

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Author Bio

Dr Jason Whealing headshot

Dr. Jason Whealing is a Chiropractor with extensive experience across the UK and Australia. He is passionate about family care and injury management. The cases Jason works with daily include back pain, neck pain, jaw pain, sciatica, knee pain, shoulder pain, headaches and migraine.

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