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Do I Have a ‘Slipped’ Disc?

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About five years ago, I experienced a very severe episode of low back pain. It is pretty ironic for a chiropractor to suffer from lower back pain, but that is exactly what happened to me. Through this experience, I learned a lot about myself, about empathy, and about how the medical profession in Singapore often drops the ball in a big way in helping people with low back pain.

Here’s the brief story…

It was a particularly challenging day at the office. I had an important administrative staff member tender her resignation, I was dealing with a stubborn new chiropractor on our team, and there were other personal matters on my plate. My mental and emotional state was not in a very positive place.

Related Post: Bulletproof Your Low Back

I was in our back-office area tidying up some things and I briskly bent over to pick up a small item. I immediately felt a light burning sensation in my lower back that dissipated shortly thereafter. At the time, I didn’t think that pain was a big deal, but as I walked around the office, I could tell that something was wrong.

My lower back muscles were growing more and more stiff and tight. After about fifteen minutes, I was having a very hard time moving around. Very small movements would cause electric shock-like bolts of pain to shoot through my low back and buttocks.

The Pain was Excruciating!

As time went by, it became very clear that this was a serious situation; I had never experienced such severe pain before.

My initial intention was to try to “gut out” my work day, but I could hardly sit or stand, let alone adjust a number of people. Slight movements were excruciating; I could hardly do anything as my mobility was severely restricted.

I knew that the best thing I could do was to get adjusted, but the intensity of the pain made it impossible for me to even get in position to be adjusted. The pain was so severe, and seemingly getting worse that it was clear that being adjusted, at least immediately after the flare-up, was out of the question. The inflammation had to go down first.

The only thing I could do was to go home early to rest and ice my lower back to try to reduce the obvious inflammation in my lumbar spine. So that is exactly what I did.

At home, I tried to move around as much as I could in-between sessions of ice, but the pain would not reduce. There wasn’t a single position I could rest in that wasn’t painful. I was slowly walking around, but bending or twisting my body in any direction was simply impossible. I was starting to get very agitated and downright worried.

As with anyone going through such a crisis, I called my now wife who was at work, and she asked for an emergency day off. Little did we know that it would end up being a few days, as I needed help with the smallest things like getting in and out of bed, placing the ice pack on my lower back, and changing my pants.

The crisis situation did not get better over the next two days, so I reluctantly decided to do something I hadn’t done in about fifteen years. I decided to go see a medical doctor.

I knew that if I could get the pain to reduce with an anti-inflammatory medication, I could get adjusted over the next few days and get back on my feet, and put this situation in the rear-view mirror.

I was at the end of my rope, and I decided to try for some temporary relief.

The Trip to the Medical Doctor

Let me fast forward to my experience at the medical doctor’s office. I did not tell the medical doctor that I was a chiropractor, because I wanted to experience what a ‘typical’ person going through a similar crisis would experience. I didn’t want to taint the interaction in any way and get the ‘pure’ medical advice as deemed appropriate for what I was experiencing. I ended up being very disappointed.

After waiting, in significant pain, for about thirty minutes, I was ushered into a cramped consultation room. I explained to the medical doctor what happened and what I was dealing with. My impression was that he was not very interested in the details of my story. It almost seemed like he was not listening to what I was saying.

Related Post: Bulletproof Your Low Back

He didn’t really ask me too many questions about the mechanism of injury, my stresses, traumas, previous injuries, or my lifestyle. You could hardly call this a clinical history.

He didn’t even look at my lumbar spine. He didn’t feel, touch, or examine the painful area. He didn’t perform any orthopedic tests to come to a diagnosis. He never once got out of his chair.

The medical doctor didn’t send me for any type of imaging, no spinal x-ray, MRI, or CT scan—NOTHING.

He simply gave me pain killers, and said something that I will never forget:

“If the pain doesn’t go away, you probably have slipped discYou may need surgery in the future.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I had spent something like five minutes in his office, pretty much offering more information than what he had asked for. This doctor made no effort to examine me or tried to understand the cause of my low back pain. And here he was, immediately jumping to the worst-case scenario. He even suggested that the most aggressive form of treatment—surgery—was likely needed in the future. What the heck?

He had no idea if my disc was a factor in my pain. He had no idea if my disc was even injured. He used the painfully imprecise phrase “slipped disc.” He had not once touched my lumbar spine, nor had he seen any visual evidence to come to this conclusion. I really doubt that this person knew the first thing about managing low back pain.

He just reflexively prescribed medication with the idea of monitoring the situation to see if we needed to escalate the form of treatment in the future. In this case, escalating to spinal surgery, which can have permanent ramifications.

Being told that you might have a disc injury (“slipped disc”) and that you may need surgery is a very scary thing. I remember wondering how many people, with very little understanding of how pain presents itself and very little knowledge of spinal biomechanics, are forced down the same path without given less invasive, more conservative options.

There was zero effort to attempt to find the cause of my pain. He just gave me drugs.

I must admit, the painkillers did help to reduce the pain temporarily so I could move around and get adjusted. After a few days of intensive adjustments, I was feeling a lot better and I haven’t needed to take painkillers since that experience.

To be fair, I will say that the drugs did their job: they got me through a crisis.

But the drugs did not correct the physical problem in my lumbar spine that caused my pain.

Physical-Problem-to-Physical-Solution

So Why Did I Have this Flare-Up?

Simply stated, I wasn’t taking very good care of myself. I caused the painful episode through MY actions:

  • Prior to the pain flare up, I was not getting adjusted as much as I used to on my wellness schedule. I was off my normal rhythm.
  • I was eating very poorly: lots of bread, rice, and other junk food. This contributed to my state of inflammation.
  • I was sitting more than normal at work, working on some written procedures. My posture was not ideal, and I didn’t take enough breaks as I was rushing out this project.
  • I was not very consistent with my exercise regime.

My choices, actions, and habits were causing harm to my spine and the pain was a warning sign—a very severe signal—telling me to act differently.  This was an accumulation of several factors, most all of which were the result of my poor choices that added up to a severe tipping point of excruciating pain.

Related Post: Bulletproof Your Low Back

The pain was the result of a severe and acute inflammation caused by the dysfunction in my spine, not a slipped discIt was a physical problem in my lumbar spine, not a chemical problem.

I’m not saying that all medical doctors are bad. My experience with this individual doctor was not good, but my overarching point is that drugs should be a last resort and used for a short period of time to help you to get through a possible crisis.

Once you can manage the pain, it is critical to address the cause of the pain, not continually mask the pain with pain-reducing chemicals.

The moral of the story is that not all episodes of low back pain are caused by disc injuries. In many cases, the disc may be a factor, but often the disc injury is an effect not the cause.

Many doctors should learn the lesson that if you only have a hammer, all problems look like nails…

Look Beyond the ‘Slipped Disc’

Lumbar disc misdiagnosis is a widespread problem. For some reason, people in Singapore, South Korea, and other parts of Asia are very fixated on spinal discs. The discs of the lumbar spine are an important part of the structure of the low back, but not all episodes of lower back pain are caused by spinal disc injury.

In fact, in most cases, a disc injury is an effect, not the cause. Typically, the disc injury is one aspect of a complex problem—a contributing factor—not the sole piece of the puzzle.

It’s very common for people to come into our chiropractic centers after being misdiagnosed with a “slipped disc” by their medical doctor. Often the medical doctor does not perform the requisite tests for an accurate diagnosis. They simply give the person a label because they were in pain.

Chiropractic is Different

We take a very different approach. We insist on a thorough examination before any diagnosis can be given and certainly before chiropractic care can commence.

A complete chiropractic spinal checkup is the essential first step in determining the cause of your low back pain.

Always ask your medical doctor what has caused your pain or health problem. If they do not know the cause then they are, at best, guessing at the at the solution. Gambling with your health is a dangerous proposition.

How to Treat Slipped Disc Without Surgery?

While spinal surgery may be appropriate in emergency and very severe situations, it should be viewed as an absolute last resort. Surgery should only be utilized if other options have already been exhausted.

There are numerous risks when it comes to spinal surgery and you should never agree to an invasive procedure until you have done thorough research. Often the complications caused by spinal surgery can be permanent.

It’s always better to start with a more conservative approach first, assess how that works for you, and then alter the approach as needed.

How Can A Chiropractor Help With A Slipped Disc?

Chiropractic offers a non-invasive, safe and effective alternative to aggressive treatments.

Have your spine checked by one of our qualified Doctors of Chiropractic to see if chiropractic is right for you.

Chiropractic adjustments improve flexibility, alignment, and movement of your spine, as well as promote balance in your nerve system. Adjustments do more than just help you feel better, they help you function better in your life.

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