person with acute lumbar disc injury holding their low back

So, you “threw out your back”. Maybe this was the first time or the fifth either way it is likely that you have a disc injury

What now? Do you go to the emergency room? Have to get surgery? Have to lay around for months hopped up on pain meds? 

Maybe none of the above. An acute lumbar disc injury is pretty common – especially at Comprehensive Chiropractic, because we’ve built a reputation for treating this injury, so we get tons of referrals. That means we are incredibly familiar with this injury and we are experts at diagnosing and treating it non invasively, gently, and effectively (or rarely, knowing when to refer people elsewhere). 

Here’s a closer look at what an acute lumbar disc injury is and how you can help treat it. 

The Lumbar Spine 

First, what does it mean? 

The “lumbar” part of the term refers to your low back – the top of your glute cheeks to the little curve at the small of your back. It spans from your triangle-shaped sacrum up to your thoracic spine, where your diaphragm attaches and your ribs start (the lower-mid section of your back). 

In your lumbar spine, you only have five vertebrae. Sometimes you can feel the exact vertebra that’s injured, but other factors can also help pinpoint where the pain originates from. That’s because you have specific nerves that stem from each vertebra that cause sensation in different parts of the body. For example, if you have pain running down the back of your leg through your glutes and down to the pinky toe side of the foot, it’s likely you have an L5 disc herniation or compression (often a cause of sciatica), whereas if it wraps around your hip and shoots down the front of the thigh and knee, it’s probably an L3 nerve compression. Sometimes, the pain is local when the disc material has not yet made contact with a nerve root. 

In other words, it’s not just “low back pain.” 

All pain in the low back is not the same, and likewise, all therapies to treat it are not the same. That’s why it’s critical to have your injury properly evaluated at Comprehensive Chiropractic to determine the root cause; self-diagnosing via Dr. Google may lead you to trying things that can actually exacerbate the problem. Often people come to our office with a diagnosis or sciatica either from the internet or a less well informed provider. Sciatica simply means pain along the path of the sciatic nerve but does not diagnose what is causing that pain to occur, as such it cannot be properly treated without a more specific diagnosis. 

Potential Causes of an Acute Lumbar Disc Injury

“Acute” means the injury or exacerbation was recent. That doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t a low back problem you’ve had before that has been getting worse over time (you know, the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back). But generally, acute means the injury suddenly and recently.. 

The event doesn’t have to be huge, though. You might just bend down to pick up a piece of paper or move a box at home. You bend, twist, or compress your back in a way that irritates the disc to the point that you now have to do something about it. The pain can radiate down the leg due to nerve irritation, too. 

Think of your discs like jelly-filled donuts. With an acute disc injury, a bit of that “jelly” protrudes out the side of the “donut.” Or for a different metaphor, the dam has broken, causing the pain to be more intense and debilitating. Often, people say, “My back went out,” but they don’t exactly know what that means. 

It can be a big, traumatic event or a small movement that just lands wrong, but whatever the cause, an acute lumbar disc injury comes on suddenly.

Severity of Disc Injuries

Just because an acute lumbar disc injury is common doesn’t mean it’s not serious. All disc injuries are pretty serious, because they are injuries to the cartilage. 

For context, if basketball player LeBron James tore some cartilage, he’d be out for six to eight weeks, even with round-the-clock PTs and chiropractors working on him with top-of-the-line equipment. And you aren’t LeBron with his elite access. You probably have to still go to work and can only see us a few times a week. Keep that in mind when setting your expectations about how quickly you will feel better. 

However, “serious” does not automatically mean surgery. Most of the time, we can treat an acute lumbar disc injury with noninvasive, conservative methods and avoid surgery. If an outside referral is necessary we generally know this within the first 3 visits. 

Treating a Lumbar Disc Injury

The first and most important piece of treatment is doing a thorough exam that will help us identify what you have going on. We will look at your history, too. The results will determine which treatment regiment is best for you. Generally, this does not include adjusting the spine in the in the early phases as this tool is often not the best for this type of injury, which is why we have many other treatment options depending on the patient’s presentation.  

Once we are out of the acute phase and the pain is reduced, we can add in adjustments, decompression, dry needling, and strengthening exercises. But don’t worry, just because we are a chiropractic office doesn’t mean we will instantly and automatically adjust you when you can barely walk. 

Chiropractic Care For Disc Injuries At Comprehensive Chiropractic

Treating a lumbar disc injury is a process. At the beginning, your body is so guarded and in so much pain that we have to do strategic techniques to bring the body out of pain and reduce disc injury. Then we can add in those other treatments.

How long it takes depends on the injury, pain, and the person (like if you are doing your at-home exercises as prescribed). At Comprehensive Chiropractic, our rule is a minimum of 30% improvement in the first three visits or we need to get other imaging or look at other treatment options. The reality is, if the diagnosis is correct, the treatment will be correct, and the patient should respond quickly.