Everything You Should Know About Herniated Disc
What is herniated disc?
The bones that form the spine (vertebrae) are cushioned by small discs, which are round, flat, and have a tough outer layer called annulus. This outer layer surrounds a jellylike material called nucleus. The main purpose of discs in your spine is to act as a shock absorber for the vertebrae.
So, what’s a herniated this then? A herniated or slipped disc refers to a problem wherein a fragment of the disc nucleus is pushed out of annulus in the spinal canal through a rupture or tear in the annulus. Generally, a herniated disc is in the early stage of degeneration.
The spinal canal doesn’t have too much space and it is insufficient for the spinal nerve and the displaced disc fragment. That’s why the disc is displaced and keeps pressing on the spinal nerves, thus causing pain which can be quite severe in some instances.
A person can have a herniated disc in any part of the spine, but in most cases it affects lower back and neck.
What causes a herniated disc?
The age-related wear-and-tear usually causes a herniated disc. This is also referred to as disc degeneration. The discs in your spine gradually lose their water content as you age. In turn, their flexibility decreases and they become more prone to rupturing or tearing even with minor twist or strain. It is important to bear in mind that not everyone’s spinal discs age at the same time or at the same pace.
In most cases, it’s not possible to simply pinpoint the exact cause of a herniated disc. There are different factors that contribute it, such as:
- Using back muscles instead of your leg and thigh muscles to lift heavy objects
- Fall or blow to the back
- Accident or severe injury
Who’s at risk?
Although everyone can develop this problem, some people do have a higher risk. The risk factors for herniated disc are listed below:
- Heredity -some individuals have a genetic predisposition to develop this problem
- Weight – as with most problems that affect our body, being overweight or obese puts you at a higher risk. It’s because the excess weight forms a bigger pressure on discs in your spine. For instance, a study published in the International Journal of Obesity discovered that BMI above 25 is associated with increased risk of lumbar disc degeneration or herniated disc in the neck. In fact, being overweight or obese at a young age increases your chances of experiencing this problem in the future.
- Occupation – people who do physically demanding jobs that require repetitive pulling, lifting, pushing, bending sideways and twisting have a higher risk of developing this problem
Symptoms of herniated disc
Although some people experience pain that ranges from mild to severe, others may have a slipped disc problem without even realizing it. As mentioned before, a herniated disc can affect any part of the spine, but it usually develops in lower back region and neck. Below, you can see the list of the most common symptoms associated with this problem:
- Tingling, aching, or a burning sensation in the affected area
- Pain and numbness that usually affect only one side of the body
- Muscle weakness that you can’t explain
- Pain extending to arms and legs
- Experiencing pain when walking, even in shorter distances
- Pain worsens with certain movements or at night
- Pain aggravates after standing or sitting for a longer period of time
You shouldn’t ignore the pain, especially if it persists for a certain period of time, consult your doctor if the pain you experience affects your ability to control the muscles.
Bulging vs. herniated discs
It’s not uncommon for people to assume that bulging and herniated discs refer to the same problem. However, that’s not the case. Herniated disc occurs when a crack in the tough outer layer of a cartilage allows the softer, inner cartilage to protrude out of the disc. The crack affects only a small portion of the disc. They are also referred to as ruptured or slipped discs.
On the other hand, a bulging disc extends outside the place it would normally occupy between the vertebrae, but it doesn’t rupture. The bulge affects a large portion of the disc. Furthermore, a person is more likely to have a bulging disc than a herniated disc. With that being said, a herniated disc is more likely to be painful.
How is herniated disc diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you to describe all symptoms you experience and in most cases, a healthcare provider will suspect a problem with herniated disc immediately after you mention all the symptoms. The doctor will also perform a physical exam and pay special attention to the area that’s causing you pain to check for the tenderness. Also, your doctor may perform a neurological exam to check:
- Ability to feel light touches or vibration
- Walking ability
- Muscle strength
To determine whether the problem is an inflammation or infection, you might have to do a blood test. Other tests that your doctor may order in order to rule out other problems are:
- X-ray – it can’t detect herniated disc. The primary purpose of this test is to rule out causes of the back pain e.g. tumor, infection…
- Myelogram – shows pressure on the spinal cord or nerves
- MRI – confirms the location of herniated disc and identifies affected nerves
- CT scan – creates cross-sectional images of the spinal column and structures around it
How is herniated disc treated?
If a person doesn’t experience symptoms of a slipped disc, then the problem usually doesn’t require treatment. However, in the cases when the problem causes pain or affects day-to-day life, then doctor may suggest the following:
- Cortisone injections – given directly into the painful area around the spinal nerves
- Over-the-counter medications – relieve mild to moderate pain
- Muscle relaxers – prescribed to patients who experience muscle spasms
- Narcotics – are usually taken for a short period of time and the doctor prescribes them only when over-the-counter medications don’t help
- Nerve pain medications – relieve nerve-damage pain
- Short-term brace for the lower back or neck
- Electrical stimulation
- Physical therapy
- Minimally Invasive Surgery – suggested only when all other treatments prove to be unhelpful. In reality, only a small number of people need surgery for this problem.
What you can do at home
- Apply hot compresses to relieve stiffness and ice pack to relieve pain
- Avoid activities that aggravate or trigger the pain
- Remain active, but avoid vigorous activities. You can walk, practice yoga
- Follow instructions provided by the doctor
A herniated disc is a common problem that usually affects lower back and neck. While some people don’t experience pain, others do. It is recommended to schedule an appointment and see your doctor in case you feel pain and make sure you don’t spend too much time at bedrest as well, due to the fact it could aggravate the pain.