Many disc pain sufferers worry about being paralyzed by a herniated disc. Some of these patients have read terrible stories about how a disc pathology crippled an individual, while others were expressly warned that neglecting treatment for a herniation might lead to eventual spinal cord or spinal nerve injury.
In my own case, I was actually threatened by a particular doctor that I would (not might) become paralyzed if I did not acquiesce to immediate lumbar surgery. I was also told by a noted surgeon that the disc issues in my neck would increase the chances of me suffering paralysis if I was to get into certain types of severe accidents.
Since paralysis is such a frightening proposition for any back or neck pain sufferer, the specter of fear often takes control of their better judgment and forces them headlong towards invasive care practices. Of course, we have already written much about the ineffectiveness of most surgical interventions for disc pain, so we all know how these operative journeys often turn out over extended timelines.
This report examines the real and exaggerated risks for paralysis that are associated with intervertebral protrusion in the spinal column. We will detail some of the myths and facts that can help patients make better choices when it comes to treatment.
Patients might fear paralysis for many possible reasons:
They might have simply invented the idea that they might become physically disabled by a herniated disc.
They may have heard some report in the media or from another person that created anxiety over possible disc-related paralysis.
They may have been warned by a physician that they are in danger of paralysis due to the anatomical presentation of a particular type of disc pathology.
Fear is a significant component of all chronic pain syndromes. Fear is also a huge motivator towards treatment that might otherwise be avoided, such as surgical intervention. In our research efforts, about 90% of patients who undergo surgical care for a herniated disc cite fear as a primary reason for their decision.
Here are some truths about disc-related paralysis, as well as some falsehoods. Of course, not every rule is universally applicable, since exceptions always exist in the realm of human diversity. However, these myths and facts do apply in the overwhelming majority of disc diagnoses:
It is extremely unlikely that any herniated disc will lead to paralysis. Disc protrusions can become acute and require immediate intervention in very rare instances, but will rarely cause any spinal nerve or spinal cord damage.
Paralysis can be a temporary result of certain types of spinal stenosis, although most cases enacted by an intervertebral disc will not be permanent and will respond favorably to surgical care.
Disc issues in the neck are more risky than disc issues elsewhere in the body. This is due to many factors, including the anatomical location high on the spinal cord, the disposition of the neck for injury and the light nature of the spine in these uppermost levels.
Disc issues that impinge upon the spinal cord, (such as a few of mine in the neck) can increase the chances of suffering paralysis from a serious injurious event, like a car accident.
Discs are extremely unlikely to lead to paralysis through simple degeneration or degenerative-induced herniation. Instead, most troublesome discs that affect nerves are created by spontaneous and massive trauma.
Early in my twenties, I consulted a particular orthopedic surgeon who scared me to death. He posted my imaging films on a large lighted reader on the wall and proceeded to tell me how my 2 lumbar herniations were going to paralyze me if I did not get immediate surgical attention.
At the time, I was still developing my knowledge base about back and neck pain, so I momentarily lost all objective focus when this kind of stress was directed at me personally. I had a moment of panic, but then better judgment took over. I listened to everything this doctor had to say and compared it against what I knew and what I was told by other doctors. When he was finished, I simply told him 2 words, “You’re fired.” I left his office quickly and never returned.
This was an obvious attempt to get me into surgery that was not necessary. I am so happy that I realized it, but was so worried for all the other patients who had probably fallen victim to similar psychological warfare tactics. This experience was one of my greatest inspirations for forming what would eventually become The Cure Back Pain Network. It really pushed me into patient advocacy more than ever before.
Much more recently, I was told by a respected and noted surgeon that he did not recommend an operation for the disc issues in my neck. Although they were severe and did predispose me towards a greater chance of suffering a spinal cord injury from trauma, this physician knew that surgery was not an ideal choice for me. He basically had a mixture of “good news” and “bad news” for me, but I appreciated his honesty and complete objectivity in evaluating my case. There was no fear, threat or coercion involved in his diagnostic presentation; just the facts.
If you fear paralysis, or have been threatened with it by a doctor or chiropractor, please learn the facts for yourself. Even the worst disc problems rarely result in lasting spinal cord or nerve injury, so paralysis is almost unheard of. When it does occur, it is often the result of serious trauma to an already compromised area of the spine and may have resulted in loss of functionality even if the disc abnormality was not there in the first place.
We can not say that a disc problem will not be involved in a paralysis condition, but statistics show that this type of event is extremely uncommon and is most typically the result of some completely external factor, such as a fall, motor vehicle collision or act of violence.