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 – which we call a hernia.
As your disc takes up more space within the spinal canal, it can press or pinch spinal nerves, causing your 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. The location of the herniated disc will determine the name, so a cervical spine 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.
In some cases with lumbar herniated discs, the outer layer can burst, allowing some of the gel to leak out. Once that happens, the nerve roots can trigger shooting leg pain and numbness to extend from the back through the buttock and down the leg.
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 – this is called degenerative disc disease.
Besides age, there are other risk factors that can increase your chances of developing a herniated disc, such as obesity, improper lifting of heavy items, smoking, and repetitive motions like bending.
Find out more by watching this video of Dr. Jenkins explaining herniated discs.
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, from feeling pain to some more severe symptoms including:
- Pain or numbness that radiates through the buttocks and legs, also called sciatica
- A tingling sensation in the buttock and leg, sometimes extending to the foot
- Weakness or muscle spasms in the arms or legs
- Pain or aching in the front of the thigh
Think you may be experiencing a herniated disc? Click here to find out.
How is a Herniated Disc Treated?
Your herniated disc treatment will depend on a range of factors. Dr. Jenkins will consider a patient’s medical history, overall condition, and the severity and duration of their symptoms in order to come up with a unique treatment strategy for each patient. This comes after a physical exam, and typically magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or a CT scan.
Some of the ways your pain may be treated include:
- Over-the-counter or prescription pain medication
- 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, surgical treatments may become necessary to relieve the pain.
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.