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Alternative Treatments for Herniated Disc

Acupuncture, Acupressure, and Massage May Work to Relieve Your Herniated Disc Pain

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Alternative and complementary treatments such as acupuncture, acupressure, and massage may relieve pain associated with a herniated or bulging disc.

If you're considering these treatments, you should consult a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) practitioner. This title can be confusing—even though alternative medicine and complementary medicine follow the same methods, they are different in that alternative forms are used in place of conventional medicine, whereas complementary treatments are used with conventional medicine.

Exploring alternative methods may not only make you more relaxed and pain free but also keep you out of the operating room. For a herniated disc, you may want to try:

Acupuncture: This ancient Chinese practice is rooted in the belief that everyone has an energy force called the Chi (sometimes spelled Qi, but both are pronounced "chee"). When the Chi is blocked or unbalanced, your body may respond with pain and illness. Traditional acupuncturists aim to free up Chi channels, known as meridians, by inserting extremely thin needles into specific points in your body's meridians.

Based on your specific diagnosis, the practitioner will likely insert multiple needles that are left in for about 20-40 minutes.

It has also been suggested that acupuncture triggers the release of endorphins into the blood stream. Simply put, endorphins are your body's natural pain relievers. As such, their release decreases your perception of pain.

Similarly, the Gate Control Theory may play a role in acupuncture's effectiveness at reducing pain. This theory asserts that pain signals travel slowly from the area of injury to the spinal cord into the brain because the nerves can only handle a limited number of signals at once. Acupuncture is thought to generate faster signals to crowd out the slow-moving pain signals, thus blocking out the pain.

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Acupressure: Not surprisingly, acupressure is very similar to acupuncture. Both are ancient techniques that restore a healthy flow of energy through the body by stimulating specific meridian points. But acupressure simply relies on fingers, hands, and elbows—not needles—to administer pressure. Acupressure is for people of all ages but not for pregnant women (some acupressure points may cause miscarriage) and those with high blood pressure.

Massage: When received regularly, massage may offer chronic low back pain relief. A massage involves the stroking, kneading, and manipulation of your back tissues. These movements increase blood flow, which delivers more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles. Extra blood also carries away waste byproducts that may accumulate over time.

While massage is not a proven treatment for herniated discs, it's generally safe and free of side effects. However, massage may not be right for you if you suffer from osteoporosis, deep vein thrombosis, skin infections, open wounds, or arthritis in or near the area to be massaged.

There are more than 100 types of massage techniques. A Swedish massage, for instance, uses long strokes to impact the superficial layers of your muscles. In contrast, a deep tissue massage uses direct pressure and slow strokes to soothe your deep layers of muscle and relieve chronic muscular tension. Your massage therapist will work with you to determine what specific massage will best reduce your pain.

When you start any new medical program, let your practitioner know if you have any health conditions besides pain from your herniated disc. It's also important to note that these treatments are most effective when used as complementary treatments (that is, combined with conventional medicine).

Updated on: 02/12/13
Jason M. Highsmith, MD
This article was reviewed by Jason M. Highsmith, MD
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