Dealing with a Herniated Disc

Hint: add tension to the connective tissue that surrounds the disc

Recently a long time youtube fan asked me how to deal with a bulged disc. They can no longer flex their spine without pain. They didn't tell me at what level the herniation occurred or in what direction.

Note, I am not a medical professional and may not give advice regarding medical conditions. Consult your surgeon or physical therapist when dealing with your own herniated discs.

That being said, what I'm outlining here is how I would approach the problem for myself.

Like anything on the internet (and in the media in general) take it with a huge grain of salt.

Understand the Problem

The first thing is to understand the problem. If it was me, I'd figure out exactly where the problem was (and what it was).

This isn't critical. You could go ahead without knowing and use pain and experimentation as a guide (which is what we are going to do anyway), but having the aforementioned knowledge could be helpful.

Since I haven't got that information lets talk about a general approach, one that involves not knowing exactly where the problem is.

But before hand, I'll have to talk about my understanding of how joints work.

It helps to understand the discs as like regular synovial joints, but thicker, and without the liquid center housed in a pocket of connective tissue.

Joints eliminate friction and redirect tension

Joints as I understand them are exactly that, pockets of connective tissue filled with a lick of synovial fluid. These connective tissue pockets are tensioned via ligaments and tendons and thus muscle activation. When muscle tension changes, so too does joint capsule tension.

This is a good thing because when, say, a joint like the knee is bearing most of the weight of the body, or multiples of body weight say during the impact of running, it would be helpful for joint capsule tension to increase. This would then increase synovial fluid pressure to help cushion bearing surfaces of opposing bones, preventing them from crashing together and thus pressing lubricating fluid out from between them.

Put another way, joint capsules and their synovial fluid contents help to keep joints lubricated through a wide range of applied forces and impulses.

Impulses are changes in force over a measured period of time

And what allows joint capsules to do this is muscle activation.

Changes in muscle tension help to vary joint capsule tension to keep joints lubricated. This in turn allows muscles on opposing sides of a joint to share loads in the same way a pulley allows rope lengths on opposite sides to have the same tension.

A pulley reduces friction (ideally, it eliminates it), while at the same time redirecting force.

With a joint capsule and its synovial fluid contents, the synovial fluid and joint capsule together help to reduce friction and redirect (or distribute) forces.

Cars have idiot lights, we have pain

In cars and motorcycles there is a single red warning light that goes off when engine oil pressure is low. It goes off early as a warning to the operator that something is wrong. Ideally, the operator then goes and buys some oil, fill the requisite oil reservoir and then, assuming a low oil level was the problem, the red warning light goes off.

Pain may be the brain (or bodies) equivalent of a low oil pressure warning light. Pain signals that certain muscles aren't firing and as a result joint capsules aren't under enough tension in certain conditions, and so the brain tries to warn of this and prevent joint damage via a pain signal (and where possible by limiting movement.)

The brain may or may not view vertebral discs in the same manner as joints. But if not, the spine does also have synovial joints and so pain may be due to insufficient muscle tension acting on these joints.

Note that when a car engine is insufficiently lubricated, it breaks. And you'll probably have to get it replaced. With joints, insufficient lubrication over time will cause the joint to no longer function. Where muscles have some functional overlap and can cover for each other, there is no redundancy with skeletal joints. And so the brain may be programmed to view joints as "critical" or "strategic" structures. Pain is a way of protecting these assets.

Using muscle activation to intelligently deal with pain

With synovial joints like the knees or hips or elbows or shoulders, (hands, wrists, feet, ankles), one way to play with the pain response is to play with different muscle activations.

For example, I learned to alleviate knee pain by activating my hip flexors (the sartorius and possibly the tensor fascia latae, both of which work on knee rotation) in certain situations. In other situations I had it helped to anchor these muscles by generating an upwards pull on my ASICs. These muscles both attach at the ASICs! So I was effectively anchoring them.

These solutions didn't always work, and so I had to experiment.

And that's probably what you'll have to do when dealing with pain from a ruptured disc.

As a side note, using muscle control to alleviate pain is different from using medication to deal with pain. Medication, as far as I am aware, masks pain. Using muscle control to alleviate pain potentially tricks the brain, but it does so in a way that also negates what caused the brain to kick in the pain response in the first place.

Using anatomy as a guide to your own anatomy

Start looking at your anatomy books so that you can see what muscles act on the joint or joints in question. But also look at connective tissue structures. A lot of anatomy books leave out important swathes of connective tissue. And so for this information you might find it helpful to read Grays anatomy (There is a book called Gray's anatomy that is about anatomy. It is not a long running t.v. series!)

Why read about connective tissue? Why learn about it? Because it transmits tension. For example, there's a band of connective tissue that runs up the front of the lumbar spine. Why is this important? Because it possibly transmits tension from the psoas. As a result, it can help prevent forward bulging of the lumbar discs.

You should also read about muscles that add tension to relevant swathes of connective tissue. Muscles are the things that you can learn to directly control. While connective tissue transmits tension, muslces are the things that generate the tension that connective tissue transmits.

Note that I'm not saying here that one is more important than the other. They work together both in helping you to feel your body and move it.

Skipping the anatomy, simple exercises

You don't necessarily have to read anatomy books. You could go with the notion that your body can heal. And you can help it. You just have to figure out the right exercises, and the right muscles to activate while exercising.

When dealing with the spine, one very simple exercise is to learn to lengthen the spine. When you "lengthen" your spine, there is a sensory component as well as a control component. You have to be able to get some sensory feedback to get the idea that your spine is long. Muscle activation creates that sensation.

Work at making your spine long from your sacrum all the way up to the base of your skull. Note that long does not equate to straight or neutral. The focus here is on feeling your spine (and controlling it). Make it feel long. And where it doesn't feel long, try varying your posture so that you can feel all parts of your spine.

And rather than trying to feel and control everything at once, focus on one pair of vertebrae (including the sacrum) at a time. Start at the top. Or start at the bottom. Then work you way down or up the spine as appropriate. where you have trouble generating sensation, stop and take a bit of time to explore, then move on from there.

Once you get an initial feel for your spine, the idea isn't to make just the back of your spine feel long, but the sides and front also. This can mean feeling the front, back and sides of the ribcage as well as the front and sides of the waist and both sides of the lower back.

Self-adjusting

What you can then work on is adjusting your posture.

While sitting or standing you can tilt your pelvis forwards or back, left or right to adjust sensation at your sacrum and lumbar spine. You can bend your ribcage forwards, backwards, left or right. You can twist it also to adjust sensation in your thoracic spine and ribcage. You can then note the positioning between ribcage and pelvis and adjust this for further fine tuning of your lumbar region and waist.

Yes, your waist should have some tension. And this you can further adjust via your transverse abdominis (and even your diaphragm.)

As a side note you might also want to adjust pelvic floor tension and lower ab tension for more balanced left/right SI joint tension. You may also find that you can adjust SI joint tension via foot/knee/hip positioning and posture.

From there you can also adjust head and neck posture and even shoulder girdle and arm posture with a focus on even feel.

From there you could narrow the focus again to the back of the spine. Are both sides of the back of the spine even? If not, this is what you can work on fixing, over the course of time.

Some basic movements for the spine

Once you have a feel for making your spine long, one possible approach is to keep it long while twisting (without using your arms to help.)

Likewise while side bending. Note for both side bending and twisting you might choose to vary pelvic tilt and the amount of lumbar back/forward bending. I'd suggest finding a position that is comfortable and that doesn't cause pain. Note that you may also have to vary the front/back bend of your ribcage.

When it comes to flexing and extending your spine while upright you may find that engaging your transverse abdominis helps. Remember there are three bands and they can be activated independently or together. One crosses the front of the hip bones, the other the front of the ribcage, the covers the space between ribcage and hip bones.

Anchoring your spine

If standing or sitting, something else that can help is hip bone stability. The idea here is that if you stabilize your hip bones (and your sacrum) you anchor the spinal erectors, QL, obliques and rectus abdominis thus making it easier for these muscles to effectively work on your spine.

If you are working on your spine while lying belly down, belly up, or lying on your side, you may also find it helpful to activate your legs as a way of anchoring your hip bones.

This is in addition to making your spine feel long!

Activating the legs can include stiffening the feet (pointed or flexed or somewhere in-between), stiffening the knees, and/or stiffening/stabilizing the hip joints.

Note, you can experiment with lengthening your spine first and then activating your legs. Or try activating legs first and then your spine. If there is pain, use whichever alleviates pain. If there is no pain, then practice using both options.

Where pain occurs, play around with these activations singly or in combination to find what works (i.e. what helps you to alleviate the pain).

Continue to experiment

On any given day, what worked on the previous day will not work now, so you may have to keep experimenting.

At the end of all of this you will ideally be relatively pain free or at the very least have the tools for dealing with pain. You'll also have a better understanding of your body.

Not sure how to lengthen your spine (or adjust)?

If you aren't sure about how to lengthen your spine or adjust check out my "spine" course. You can purchase this course and download it, or access it and all my other muscle control courses via a membership.

The membership is $40.00 a month (or less) and you can cancel at any time.

(Alternatives include $100/3 months or $120/6 months).

Plus, there's a 10 day guarantee for first time members.

Published: 2021 08 05

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Dealing with herniated discs

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