The annulus of the intervertebral disk is comprised of tough, dense, and strong cartilaginous fibers that protect the nucleus within, which facilitates the movement of the spine. If the structure of the annulus is compromised, the nucleus can leak into or beyond the annulus, a condition that may be classified as a disk herniation, protrusion, extrusion, or sequestration. In the event a disk herniation in the lumbar spine places pressure on a lumbar nerve root, an individual may feel pain down into the leg, which is called lumbosacral radiculopathy or sciatica. Absence a red flag—infection, fracture, cancer, and cauda equina syndrome (loss of bowel and/or bladder control)—that may necessitate immediate emergency and/or surgical intervention, what treatment approach may best serve a patient with a newly diagnosed lumbar disk herniation?
In 2022, researchers conducted a retrospective cohort study that looked at outcomes of more than 11,000 patients under age 49 with a newly diagnosed lumbar disk herniation, half of whom received initial treatment from a doctor of chiropractic. While the authors of the study note that additional studies are needed, their analysis revealed that lumbar disk herniation patients whose first choice of treatment is chiropractic care are significantly (up to two-times) less likely to undergo lumbar diskectomy in the following two years than disk patients who initially seek out a different healthcare provider.
It should be noted that treatment guidelines generally advise conservative treatment approaches, which include chiropractic care, before consulting with a surgeon. However, another study published in 2022 found that, among a group of 144 patients who underwent back surgery, 60 (41.7%) did not receive any conservative treatment in the six months before their procedure. A 2021 study that looked at questionnaires completed by 3,724 adults revealed that the majority of respondents believe that surgery is always needed for a disk herniation, which is inaccurate.
For the management of a lumbar disk herniation, doctors of chiropractic will typically employ a multimodal approach that includes spinal manipulative therapy, mobilization therapy, soft tissue therapy, and exercise training. Chiropractors may also offer additional services such as traction or non-surgical decompression that can benefit such patients. If the patient does not experience improvement in their pain and disability or their condition worsens, they may be referred to an allied healthcare provider to explore other treatment options.