What is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, is a spinal condition in which the soft inner material of an intervertebral disc protrudes or leaks through a crack in the tougher outer layer. This can lead to pressure on nearby nerves, causing pain, numbness, and weakness.
What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?
Most often, spinal discs tend to herniate in the lower back (Lumbar Spine), although they may also occur in the neck (Cervical Spine). Signs and symptoms depend on the location of the affected disc and the impinged nerve.
Arm or leg pain. If a disc herniates in the lower back, patients will typically feel pain in the buttocks, thigh and calf, and possibly the foot as well. If a disc herniates in the neck, patients typically feel the most pain in the shoulder and arm. This pain may shoot down arm or leg when you cough, sneeze or move into certain positions.
- Numbness or tingling. People with a herniated disc often experience radiating numbness or tingling in the body part served by the affected nerves.
- Weakness. Muscles served by the affected nerves tend to weaken. This can cause patients to stumble, or affect their ability to lift and hold items.
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
Disc herniation most often occurs due to gradual, age-related wear and tear known as disc degeneration. As you age, the discs lose their flexibility, making them prone to tearing or rupturing with even a minor strain or twist.
Sometimes, using your back muscles instead of your leg and thigh muscles to lift heavy objects can lead to a herniated disc, as can twisting and turning while lifting. Traumatic injury may cause herniated discs, but far less often than other causes.
What are the Treatment Options for Herniated Discs?
Conservative treatment mainly involves modifying daily activities to avoid pain and taking pain medication. In most patients, conservative treatment relieves symptoms within a few days or weeks.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers.
- Cortisone injections. If medication does not relieve the pain, a physician may recommend a corticosteroid injection around the area to reduce inflammation.
- Muscle relaxers. Medication that can reduce muscle spasms.
Physicians may suggest physical therapy to help with your pain. Physical therapists can demonstrate several positions and exercises that can help minimize the pain of a herniated disk.
Only a few patients will require surgery for a herniated disc. The physician may suggest surgery if all conservative treatment fails to improve symptoms after six weeks, especially if you continue to have:
- Numbness or weakness
- Difficulty walking or standing
- Loss of bladder or bowel control
In most cases, surgeons will remove the portion of the disc that protrudes into the spinal column. In these cases where the surgeon must remove the entire disc, they will fuse the adjacent vertebrae together with a bone graft.
To allow the fusion process to take place over months safely, the surgeon will place metal hardware into the spine to provide spinal stability.