A common cause of back pain, herniated discs are relatively common. Many people refer to them as a slipped disc. The bones in your spine are called vertebrae, and they have discs of tissue between them that keep them from becoming damaged. These discs can deteriorate over time, or they can get injured. Discs have a soft center that moves with your body. Sometimes, the softer part can bulge out of the spine, known as a herniated disc. Similar to a hernia in the stomach, it can be harmless, or it can be extremely painful.
How does it happen?
Sometimes, a herniated disc can be caused by excessive force or strain on the back. This can be over time, or in a single event. Usually, discs are already deteriorating before a herniation can occur. In the case of degeneration, sometimes only a slight strain can pop a disc out of place. Because of this, there can be several different causes for a slipped disc.
Why does it happen?
The discs in the spine are very important to the functional movement of your body. If those discs are worn down, the softer central part is not as springy, but the outer part becomes more brittle. This can cause the outer ring of the disc to crack, tear, or bulge out when something puts a strain on that disc. The softer part can also bulge into the spinal cavity where the spinal cord is. There is not enough room for the disc and for the spinal cord, which can cause some serious issues. Most herniations tend to occur in the lower part of the spine, which is more prone to injury when lifting heavy things.
Symptoms of a Herniated Disc
The symptoms of herniation can vary due to the severity of the injury. The most common symptom is pain, which can happen in different intensities. Usually it isn’t a pain that is consistent, but seems to change when you move or position yourself differently. Another symptom is numbness or tingling sensations. Most people feel these in their extremities like hands and feet, but it just depends on which nerves may be affected. Along with that, some people feel sharp or shooting pains in their arms and legs. This can be another sign that nerves are being pinched. Another symptom of a herniated disc is weakness, also a sign of nerve damage. This could mean decreased lift capacity, and difficulty walking or holding things.
Diagnosis of a Herniated Disc
Diagnosing a slipped disc is not too difficult. Herniated discs cannot be seen using an x-ray machine, but a doctor may order one to see the spine. Doctors may also want to use an x-ray to make sure that the pain is not being caused by a fracture in the spine or other kinds of bone issues. A doctor will then usually order an MRI, which will help them to see what your discs look like. This can produce a 3-D image of your spine and surrounding nerves. The doctor should be able to see just about everything they need to be able to diagnose a herniated disc at that point. Some doctors may want to also use a myelogram. This is a special type of x-ray that specifically targets the spine and shows the spaces where fluid is and is not. This can help the doctor to rule out if any tumors have formed as well, which could cause complications.
Some options for herniated discs are not surgical, and are usually very effective. Applying ice to the affected area may help the swelling to reduce and the disc can return to normal. This works best if the back pain has started recently, especially after an injury. Applying heat can also help the inflammation and help the muscles to ease strain. Something like a hot bath can be a great option. NSAIDs, or over-the-counter pain medications, can also help to get rid of the pain and relieve some swelling. Muscle relaxers can also help ease the strain and may be able to relieve pain as well. Physical therapy is another way to get the disc back into place and heal the spinal muscles. This can take some time, but it is very effective. A more invasive but also very helpful treatment is the use of epidural injections, which are steroids. These are injected directly into the spine and can relieve pain as well as help the disc to go back to normal.
In more extreme cases, surgery may be required to repair the spine. One option for surgery is a discectomy. This is when a doctor removes a portion of the herniated disc, but not all of it. This surgery is usually not too invasive and the healing process is relatively short. Another surgical option is spinal fusion, which removes the infected disc entirely, and then the surrounding vertebrae are fused into place. This limits movement, but almost always alleviates the pain. There is also a recently developed surgery where the discs are replaced instead. This removes the herniated or diseased disc, then replaces it with a medical-grade artificial disc. This does tend to have a longer healing period, but it has some amazing results. There are several different things that can be done surgically that will improve the condition of a herniated disc, so make sure to discuss with your doctor when you are making the decision of surgery or not.
What to do next
If you are feeling any of these symptoms and think you may have a herniated disc, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. A herniated disc may get worse if nothing is done, and you could suffer serious nerve damage if it goes untreated. It is unlikely that you will need surgery, and doctors will almost always try non-surgical treatments first. If your pain can be relieved, it is worth it to see a certified physician who can help you.