What happens when a disc becomes herniated?
When there is damage to the disc, pieces of the nucleus or the end-plate can rupture through the surrounding connective tissue. The resulting bulge can cause significant low back pain. A herniated disc can occur in any part of the back, but they are most common in the lower part of the back, just above your hips.
In some cases, the outer layer can burst, allowing some of the gel to leak out. Once that happens, the nerves leading to the legs often become irritated, causing numbness, aching pain or sharp, shock-like pain to extend from the back through the buttock and down the leg.
A herniated disc can happen in any region of the spine — a cervical herniated disc is in the neck, a thoracic herniated disc is in the upper back and shoulder area, and a lumbar herniated disc is in the low back area.
What causes disc herniation?
There are several factors that can cause a disc to become herniated. Injury is a common cause — when we fall or have some other type of injury that causes an impact to the spine, the vertebrae become compressed, squeezing the discs and potentially causing bulges or leaks to occur.
But in many cases, discs become herniated as a result of the aging process. When we’re young, discs have a high fluid content, which keeps them elastic and pliable. But as we get older, discs begin to lose some of that liquid. After years of wear and tear, weakened discs become more prone to herniation.
Besides age, there are other risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a herniated disc:
- Being overweight or obese, which places added pressure on your spine
- Lifting heavy items improperly, placing added strain on your spine
- Having a sedentary lifestyle, which results in your back being less flexible and strong
- Smoking, which impairs healthy circulation to the spine and the rest of the body
- Sitting for prolonged periods of time, over and over again, especially when driving for long distances
- Repetitive motions like bending and lifting that place added stress on your spine
What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?
Some people who have herniated discs have no symptoms at all. But for many people, they can cause a range of symptoms, including:
- Dull achiness or sharp pain in the lower back
- Pain or numbness that radiates through the buttocks and legs, also called sciatica
- A “needles and pins” tingling sensation in the buttock and leg, sometimes extending to the foot
- Weakness or muscle spasms in the legs
- Pain or aching in the front of the thigh
- When a disc in the neck becomes herniated, it can cause similar symptoms to occur in the arms.
How is a herniated disc treated?
Dr. Jenkins will consider a patient’s history, overall condition, and the severity and duration of their symptoms in order to come up with a unique treatment strategy for each patient.
- Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers
- Muscle relaxants if the disc compression is causing muscle spasms
- Cortisone injections to reduce swelling and inflammation
- Hot or cold therapy to reduce swelling and increase circulation for better healing
- Stretching exercises to improve flexibility and reduce pressure
- Physical therapy for guided exercises and other approaches to minimize pain
When other courses of action have either failed or if the symptoms will not tolerate conservative management, surgery may become necessary. Surgery usually involves removal of the portion of the disc that’s bulging, but in some cases, the entire disc must be removed. In those cases, the vertebrae on either side of the disc will be fused together using metal rods to prevent the bones from grinding against one another.
It’s important for every patient to have a treatment strategy that is tailored to their needs, which is why it’s essential to see a physician who is familiar with a wide variety of techniques, procedures, and treatments. Dr. Jenkins understands the full spectrum of herniated discs and knows to whom the patient should be referred for where they are in their symptoms or recovery phase.