Herniated Disc Recovery Time: More Whole Body Inflammation Predicts Poor Recovery from a Herniated Disc

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What impacts herniated disc recovery time? Chronic inflammation has been associated with many modern problems like heart disease, irritable bowel and even multiple sclerosis.

Measuring this inflammation is usually accomplished by using CRP or C-reactive protein. This substance is part of the cellular garbage disposal system of the body and high levels have been associated with a greater risk of a future heart attack. However, CRP is either a general measure of whole body inflammation or an active system for getting rid of waste. A more specific marker is an inflammatory cytokine. These are chemical messengers that allow one cell to give the message to another that inflammation is needed. The most common of these cytokines is known as IL-6. This marker is found in arthritis, heart disease, and other problems where the signal for inflammation is stuck in the “always on” position. Now researchers have correlated high IL-6 levels in the body with poor recovery from a low back disc herniation.

The IL-6 Research

The research looked at 100 patients with herniated discs in their low back and followed them for a year. Baseline IL-6 blood levels were taken. Those patients with higher IL-6 levels in their blood were about three and a half times less likely to recover over that year. They also had more low back pain and longer duration of leg pain.

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First, this may be a marker for less healthy patients, as high IL-6 levels have also been associated with a greater risk for a heart attack. Second, more inflammation around the nerve and disc isn’t a good thing, as it stokes the fire of nerve pain. Think of the issue as a forest fire. Multiple things impact the intensity of the fire. First there are the general environmental conditions like the wind, heat, and humidity (high winds and heat and low humidity will help the fire). The body’s IL-6 level is like these general weather conditions. Then there are local on the ground issues that can stoke the fire, like the amount of dead trees in the fire’s path. This is like the local swelling and inflammation that happens between the disc and the nerve.

What Can You Do?

Do not take more NSAID drugs like Motrin, Alleve, or Celebrex, as they are associated with a much higher risk of sudden death heart attack. An alternative would be high dose fish oil, as this has been shown to improve systemic IL-6 levels (this supplement also made arterial walls more supple). Here’s more research to support that fish oil reduces IL-6 serum levels (article 1, article 2, article 3).

The upshot? If you’re having trouble recovering from a herniated disc and want to avoid surgery, consider getting your IL-6 blood levels measured. If that’s too esoteric for your doctor, all of this roughly follows CRP levels, which are more commonly measured. Then get on high dose fish oil for a few months and see if those IL-6 levels go down. Finally, placing your own growth factors in the area to help the herniated disc at the site as a back surgery alternative may also be a big help.

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Chris Centeno, MD is a specialist in regenerative medicine and the new field of Interventional Orthopedics. Centeno pioneered orthopedic stem cell procedures in 2005 and is responsible for a large amount of the published research on stem cell use for orthopedic applications. View Profile

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