Weight Loss to Treat Herniated Disc Pain

Will I need back surgery if I lose weight?

Question: I'm overweight, and I've had severe back pain caused by a herniated disc. (I hurt my back while lifting something extremely heavy when I was moving 5 years ago). I'm a 33-year-old woman with the rest of my life ahead of me, and I don't want to resort to surgery just yet. I know there are plenty of non-surgical treatment options. Would losing weight make it less likely that I'll need surgery?
—Lafayette, IN

overweight woman tried to button her jeansLosing a little weight may help you better control back pain. Photo Source: 123RF.com.

Answer: It's a common misconception I see in many of my patients that a herniated disc automatically means you'll need spine surgery. But that's not true: Just because you have a herniated disc doesn't guarantee you need surgery.

You're right, however, that if you're overweight, losing weight may make it much less likely that you'll need surgery to treat a herniated disc.

Losing weight isn't just good for your spine; it's good for your overall health and well-being. All those extra pounds you're carrying around can be contributing to the severity of your back pain: Excess weight puts extra strain on your body, including your back.

But when you're at a healthy weight, there's less pressure on the intervertebral discs—and your herniated disc.

Think of a herniated disc as a tire that's starting to bulge on a car that's stuffed to its capacity. The tire begins to weaken because it can't support the excess weight of the car. This is what can happen to your discs if you're overweight. However, when you lose weight, you significantly address the problem—just as the bulging tire may become normal again without you having to fix it, a herniated disc may resolve on its own.

You mentioned that you're already aware of the non-surgical treatment options to help address a herniated disc, so you know that physical therapy and medications (2 common treatments for a herniated disc) can help you manage your back pain.

But there are 2 additional treatments that can help address both your weight issues and your herniated disc: eating healthy and exercising regularly.

A nutritious diet can help you reach a healthy weight, which can help keep back pain at bay.

Similarly, exercise can help you lose weight and manage back pain caused by a herniated disc because it can strengthen the muscles that support your spine. But talk to your doctor before starting an exercise program. Stop exercising right away if your back pain gets worse or you develop new symptoms.

Also, have a conversation with your doctor about all your options for treating a herniated disc. If you try all non-surgical treatment options for several months and they don't help address your back pain caused by a herniated disc, at that point, you may want to consider surgery.

And please be more careful when lifting heavy objects! To avoid a back injury in the future, be sure to lift properly (bending at the knees—not the waist—to pick up an object).

Will losing weight eliminate your back pain caused by a herniated disc entirely? Probably not, but losing weight can help your back heal faster.