What Is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc is a back condition that affects the intervertebral discs in the spine. The spinal discs cushion and support the vertebrae, act as shock absorbers, and allow the spine to move freely and flexibly. Discs are made up of two parts: a tough outer ring of ligaments called the annulus fibrosus and a soft, jelly-like inner core called the nucleus pulposus.
Disc herniation occurs when the annulus fibrosus tears, causing the jelly-like nucleus to protrude from the disc and leak into the spinal canal. By itself, herniation may not be painful. But fragments of the disc have a high chance of irritating or compressing nearby spinal nerves or the spinal canal, leading to pain and symptoms. Herniation is most common in the cervical or lumbar spine.
A herniated disc is also called a slipped, prolapsed or ruptured disc.
Causes and Risk Factors
Age-related degeneration is the leading cause of disc herniation. As we age, our spinal discs age along with us. They become drier, stiffer, less flexible and more prone to injury and damage. As degeneration progresses, discs are at higher risk of tearing from a minor strain or twisting movement. While the actual disc herniation may occur suddenly, it’s usually as a result of years of gradual weakening and degeneration.
In younger adults, disc herniation can occur as the result of a traumatic incident like a fall, car accident or sports accident. Herniation can also occur from lifting a heavy load using your back muscles or lifting and twisting simultaneously.
Age is the primary risk factor for disc herniation, and the injury commonly affects people between the ages of 35-55. Other risk factors include obesity, working a physically demanding job with repetitive lifting movements, practicing improper lifting techniques, gender (men are more likely to develop a herniated disc), smoking and genetics.
The location and size of the herniation play a large role in symptom expression. In many cases, people with a small herniation that’s not pressing against spinal nerves may experience mild neck or back pain, or no symptoms at all. If a herniated disc is compressing nearby nerve roots or the spinal cord, symptoms vary depending on location.
- Cervical spine. In the neck, a herniated disc can cause neck pain that spreads to the shoulder and arm. Additionally, it can cause numbness, tingling and weakness down the arm, hand and fingers.
- Lumbar spine. In the low back, a herniated disc can cause sciatica. Sciatica is a type of nerve pain that develops when nerves in the lumbar spine are pinched or inflamed. It’s characterized by one-sided pain, numbness, tingling and weakness that travels from the low back to the buttock, back of thigh, calf and foot. The pain can be deep and achy or sharp, burning or electric.
If the herniated disc is located in the lumbar spine, pain and symptoms are usually worse with prolonged periods of sitting, standing or walking. Forceful motions like a cough, sneeze or laugh can trigger the onset of pain. Sitting in a reclining chair or lying down with support under the knees can relieve pressure on the low back nerves and ease pain and symptoms.
Treatment and Prevention
Many herniated discs heal naturally within a few weeks. Your doctor may recommend several non-surgical treatment options to help relieve your discomfort and speed up the healing process.
- Activity modifications. If you’re experiencing severe pain, rest for 1-2 days, but resume activity again as soon as you’re able. Prolonged bed rest and immobilization can cause more pain and stiffness. Avoid strenuous, high-impact activities that cause pain, but stay active with low-impact exercises and movement.
- Medications. Over-the-counter pain medications are effective for mild to moderate pain. If you have severe pain or muscle spasms, your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medications or muscle relaxants.
- Injections. A corticosteroid injection directly into the spine can relieve inflammation, pain and swelling around irritated nerve roots. While the pain-relieving effects of an injection are temporary, the injection gives your body a chance to start healing.
- Physical therapy. Your therapist will work with you on gentle exercises and stretches that relieve pressure on the spine and provide pain relief. Additionally, physical therapy can help you improve your back and core strength, mobility and endurance. The low back and core muscles are essential for supporting the spine and preventing injuries.
If conservative treatments aren’t effective after a few weeks, it may be time to consider surgery.
Surgery is advisable if you have severe pain, reduced mobility or worsening nerve symptoms that could indicate nerve damage. In many cases, a surgeon is able to remove only the portion of the disc that’s protruding into the spinal canal. In some cases, the surgeon will remove the entire damaged disc and replace it with an artificial one or fuse the adjacent vertebrae.
Contact Integrity Spine and Orthopedics to Learn More About the Conditions We Treat
At Integrity Spine and Orthopedics, we specialize in identifying, diagnosing and treating a wide range of acute and chronic back, spine and joint conditions. Our board-certified orthopedic surgeons specialize in performing minimally invasive spine surgeries to reduce pain and improve mobility for patients diagnosed with spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease, bulging or herniated discs, a pinched nerve, spinal stenosis and more.
Some of the primary benefits of minimally invasive surgery include:
- Smaller incisions
- Fewer complications and bloss loss during surgery
- Less damage to surrounding muscle and soft tissues
- Lower risk of infection
- Less post-op pain and less reliance on strong pain medications during recovery
- Faster recovery and rehabilitation
- Better cosmetic results with minimal scarring
If you’re experiencing back or joint pain, weakness, or a loss of mobility, reach out to us today to schedule a consultation with our team. We provide compassionate and comprehensive care to help you find relief from pain and get back to doing the activities you love.
Call us at 904-456-0017 or contact us online to request an appointment.