The Truth About Herniated Discs
By Dean Moyer
Author of Rebuild Your Back
To hear some people tell it, you’d think that almost all back and neck pain must surely be caused by herniated discs. In fact, for years we’ve been told over and over again how the bulging disc - encroaching into the spinal canal - was pinching nerves and causing back pain, neck pain and various neurological disorders such as arm, shoulder and leg pain.
And, to make matters worse, for years we’ve been led to believe that surgery was the only sure way to correct these problems. But - like many things we’ve been told over the years - the truth turns out to be quite a different story.
Researchers are beginning to realize that herniated discs may not cause back pain at all.
And what’s more, they have discovered that herniated discs – if treated with the correct exercises - will completely heal and shrink back to their normal shape and TOTALLY DISAPPEAR.
Study Shows Herniated Discs Seldom Cause Back Pain
To get the full story we have to go back about ten years to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine involving the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to diagnose back pain. In this study researchers (who were intrigued by the findings of several other studies concerning herniated discs) selected 98 subjects who did not have back pain or any other back related symptoms and sent them to be evaluated by MRI scans. What makes this interesting is that the evaluators were not told that these people did not have back problems.
The results were pretty astounding and sent a shock wave through the medical community at that time. What they found was that 64 percent of the test subjects came back with MRIs that showed disc problems that normally would have marked them as prime candidates for surgery… except, of course, for one little problem… and that was that they did not have back problems at all!
Over half of the test subjects turned out to have herniated discs, and a large percentage of these people - who did not have any back pain whatsoever - were diagnosed as having such things as spondylolysis, spondylolisthesis and stenosis of the spinal canal. Here are the exact findings:
The most common nonintervertebral disk abnormalities in people without symptoms were Schmorl's nodes (herniation of the disk into the vertebral-body end plate), in 19 percent of the subjects; annular defects (disruption of the outer fibrous ring of the disk), in 14 percent; and facet arthropathy (degenerative disease of the posterior articular processes of the vertebrae), in 8 percent. Seven percent of the asymptomatic subjects had spondylolysis, 7 percent had spondylolisthesis, 7 percent had stenosis of the central canal, and 7 percent had stenosis of the neural foramen. 
With the results of the two readings averaged, 52 percent of the subjects had a bulge at at least one level, 27 percent had a protrusion, and 1 percent had an extrusion. Thirty-eight percent had an abnormality of more than one intervertebral disk. 
Herniated Discs Just Innocent Bystanders?
Well, needless to say the researchers were stunned. These results called into question nearly everything that they had previously believed about herniated discs and back pain. In addition, these results clearly showed that MRIs are not reliable tools for determining the cause of back or neck pain.
After carefully considering all the facts, the research team finally concluded that - if people could have herniated discs and other spinal abnormalities and not have any back problems whatsoever - then maybe the herniated discs weren’t causing back pain after all. Maybe the presence of herniated discs in people with back pain was just a coincidence…
Conclusions On MRI examination of the lumbar spine, many people without back pain have disk bulges or protrusions... Given the high prevalence of these findings and of back pain, the discovery by MRI of bulges or protrusions in people with low back pain may frequently be coincidental. 
And, as I mentioned earlier, there have been a number of studies that have arrived at similar conclusions. I won’t bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say, the results of these clinical studies have cast considerable doubt on whether herniated discs have anything to do with back pain at all. And furthermore, they call into question the wisdom of diagnosing back pain with inaccurate and unreliable imaging technologies. [2,3,4,5,6... 16]
Herniated Disc Opinions Changing
Here are a few select opinions that I thought you’d find interesting:
Contributing to the rush to surgery has been the widespread use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)… But what may look like a trouble spot often is not. Abnormal-looking disks in the lumbar spine are almost as likely to show up in people with no back pain as in those with pain. That is, abnormalities that show up in MRIs are not necessarily related to back pain. And some people with severe back pain have normal-looking MRIs. 
The relation between abnormalities in the lumbar spine and low back pain is controversial. Previous autopsy studies, as well as myelography, computerized tomography (CT), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), have shown abnormalities in a substantial number of people without back pain. A recent study using MRI reported a high prevalence of disk herniation in people without symptoms and urged caution in relating symptoms to such lesions. [1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8]
Can disc herniation cause back pain? According to Bogduk, nerve-root compression (i.e., from a bulging or herniated disc)… is unlikely to be a common source of back pain. "There is no evidence that nerve root irritation causes back pain… " he says. 
Discs have been blamed as the troublemakers for years. If you had sciatica, it meant that a disc had popped out or ‘slipped’. But how wide off the mark that glib diagnosis can be. This is just not the way discs behave. Discs never slip anywhere, in or out. They simply bulge and, even when they do, that bulge may be painless and harmless. 
Doctors Slow to Change
Today medical experts agree that there’s very little evidence to suggest that herniated discs are the cause of back or neck pain. [20-26] Unfortunately, far too many doctors have been slow to embrace this current research. And what’s more, they still insist on using MRIs and other expensive scans even though the results are often inaccurate and misleading.
We could speculate all day as to why this is so, however, that would not get us any closer towards our goal of rebuilding your back or neck. What we need to focus on right now is the fact that any bulging discs you may have are - in all likelihood - just a coincidence.
Which means the presence of one or more herniated discs on an MRI is not a cause for alarm. It probably has nothing to do with your back or neck pain and it is DEFINITELY NOT an indication that you need surgery.
NEXT: Part Two:Herniated Discs Don't Require Surgery
Examine the clinical proof that herniated discs do in fact heal, and that they actually shrink up and totally disappear if given half a chance.
About the Author
Rebuild Your Back
Rebuild Your Neck
The Pain Relief Manual
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Last updated: July 31, 2006