Can a herniated disc heal on its own?

Updated: Mar 14

Often people will show me an MRI scan and tell me the cause of their pain is related to the bulging disc have been diagnosed with. Sometimes the disc will bulge out just a bit, sometimes quite far. Sometimes more than one disc will bulge out.

When I was in my early twenties and experiencing chronic lower back pain myself, I had such an MRI scan which told me I had a serious disc bulge (specifically an ‘extrusion’ where the gel like material in the centre of the disc had burst through (or herniated) the outer wall of the disc) between lumbar vertebrae 4 and lumbar vertebrae 5 (L4/L5).

I believe in part that seeing this scan made me more fearful of movement and that my back would always be damaged, and these beliefs and fears contributed significantly to my pain lasting for many more years than it needed to.

What I know now after many years of study, practice and research is that disc bulges are rarely the cause of the pain, and just because a disc is bulging or herniated at one point in time (i.e. the snapshot you get when you have the MRI scan) it doesn’t have to stay like this.

Like any other body part that is injured, the body has an amazing capacity to heal itself. When a disc bulges or herniates (and I will use the terms here interchangeably – you may also hear the older terminology of a ‘slipped’ disc, which is a bit mis-leading as the disc never actually ‘slips’ out, and also people will often refer to disc degeneration as well, which whilst slightly different I would also like to add that degeneration can be halted and reversed), it is absolutely possible for the disc to reabsorb the bulge or herniation and for the outer wall of the disc to heal. Whilst I haven’t had a scan in recent years, I believe that if I were it could still show the same bulging, or possibly that the bulges have been reabsorbed. Either way, there is no pain.

Spinal discs are made of living tissue that can regenerate. As they do not have their own direct blood supply they are slower to regenerate that some other parts of the body. Discs take in nutrients through a process known as imbibation, where water is drawn into the tissues of the disc as pressure is decreased. It’s one of the reasons why the discs plump up after a night’s sleep. We can work to create this imbibation process ourselves through certain gentle movement practices. One that works particularly is where there is compression and then decompression into the discs between the vertebrae. This essentially allows the discs to the suck in the fluids – making it possible for them to rehydrate, plump up and restore.

As well as avoiding long periods in any one posture (i.e. sitting all day, standing all day etc), one of the best ways to bring compression and decompression into the spine is through a yin yoga posture known as sphinx pose. In other forms of yoga a variation of this may be practiced (called Cobra and also ‘Up Dog’) in other ways but I don’t generally recommend these as I don’t believe there is enough preparation for coming into these shapes and insufficient time is spent in them to make a big difference).

To come safely into Sphinx pose in yin yoga, I first recommend lying completely prone on your belly with the legs extended into a ‘V’ shape and the arms out into a ‘V’ shape – I call this ‘starfish pose’. From starfish pose, you imagine someone has glued your pelvis to the floor and you initially extend your legs out along the floor as if you’re trying to gain an extra cm or two. Then you pick up the head and upper body from the floor just a few centimetres and move the rib cage and upper body from side to side between the ‘V’ of the arms. You are also able to gently rock the pelvis from side to side. You can imagine the upper body is trying to escape forward from the pelvis that has been glued to the floor. Gradually you can raise the head and upper body up a big higher so that you’re bringing a greater compression into the lower back. You may spend a couple of minutes doing this before coming up into the Sphinx pose only to a height that feels appropriate for you. Once in the Sphinx pose, you can stay there for between 3-5 minutes. Keep length through the back of the neck by looking down towards the floor.

When you’re ready to come out, turn the hands in towards each other so the elbows come out to the sides and then ease the upper body forward as well as down to the floor. Rock the pelvis gently side to side and then return to the original starfish shape. Stay there for the same amount of time you were in the sphinx pose for. To come out you can then take the hands under the shoulders, push up from the floor and move the bum back towards the heels (into a child’s pose) and then back to all fours.

If you'd like to learn how to practice this and other movements that are helpful for chronic back pain, you may like to try my back pain reduction series course:

Watch Back Pain Reduction Series Online | Vimeo On Demand on Vimeo

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