Non-surgical Treatment Options for a Herniated Disc

Question: I'm 65 years old, and I have a herniated disc at the C3-C4 area. What are my treatment options besides surgery?
—Gainesville, FL
Senior woman with neck painAnswer: The "C3-C4 area" is located in the upper-middle level of your cervical spine (your neck), between your third and fourth vertebrae.

There is an intervertebral disc between each of your vertebra. These discs have 2 parts: the gel-like nucleus pulposus in the center, and the annulus fibrosis, the supportive outside walls.

The job of a disc is to help absorb gravity and dissipate other forces placed on your spine (in this case, your neck). Over time and with injury, the walls of the annulus fibrosis weaken, and the nucleus pulposus can break through (herniate). Sometimes, people experience pain when this happens. But sometimes they don't have pain at all—even if you can clearly see their herniated disc on an MRI.

If you do experience symptoms due to a herniated disc and surgery is not an option for you, research has shown that over several months, your pain could naturally go away. However, many people choose to have their doctor manage their pain and other symptoms.

To reduce painful inflammation or pain from movement, your doctor can prescribe oral medications (eg, NSAIDs) or medications your doctor can inject (eg, epidural steroid injections) into your neck.

Depending on your condition, your doctor may refer you to a physical therapist for treatment, especially if you can't move your neck well—or when you do move it, you have pain.

A physical therapy treatment plan for you could include therapeutic exercises that are customized to meet your needs, such as repeated neck retraction (eg, chin-tuck exercise) and range of movement exercises to help reduce and prevent your neck pain.

If you experience any pain while doing any of your prescribed exercises, stop immediately and call your physical therapist.

Your physical therapist can also teach you how to maintain good alignment and correct posture while sitting, standing, and lying down to prevent your pain. He or she may also perform joint mobilization or manipulation, types of hands-on therapies that help restore movement in your joints. These may help relieve your pain or other symptoms.

Work with your physical therapist to design a program to treat the symptoms related to your herniated disc in your neck. Better neck health is on the way!