Spine Surgery

January 17, 2022

What You Need to Know About Herniated Discs

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Spinal discs are small ovals with a gelatinous center inside a rubber exterior. These discs, which sit between the individual vertebrae in the spine, cushion the bones and allow movement, acting as a “shock absorber” as you move.

At times, a disc’s center (the nucleus) may bulge out into the rubbery exterior if there is a rip or tear in the disc. This is sometimes referred to as a herniated, ruptured, or slipped disc. Herniated discs are some of the most common causes of back and neck pain.

A herniated disc can occur anywhere along the spine, but they are more often seen in the lumbar area (the lower back) or the cervical area (the neck). When a disc is herniated, it may irritate a nearby nerve. This can cause weakness, numbness, or pain in your back, neck, arm, or leg.

What Causes A Herniated Disc?

For most people, a herniated disc develops over time due to wear and tear and slow deterioration from aging. As we get older, the discs in our spine become less flexible and “bouncy,” making them more susceptible to rupturing or tearing.

Surprisingly, most herniated discs aren’t caused by an accident or sudden blow. Many people simply move the wrong way or strain their back muscles by lifting something or moving suddenly. Even a minor movement or unexpected twist can trigger herniation in some situations.

What Are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?

The symptoms of a herniated disc may vary, but they are usually felt on one side of the body. Symptoms also vary by the location of the disc. For example, herniated discs in the lower back usually cause pain in the thigh, calf, and buttocks. In some cases, the pain may run down to the foot. A herniated disc in the neck, however, causes pain in the shoulder and arm. It may be a shooting pain that is worse when you change positions, sneeze, or cough. The sensation is usually sharp or burning.

Other symptoms of a herniated disc may include pain in the back and sides of the neck, pain between the shoulder blades, and/or pain that increases when you turn your head or move your neck. You may also experience numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation, such as radiating pain that tingles in your arm or leg.

Some people develop a herniated disc without any symptoms. If the bulging of the disc doesn’t impinge on a nerve, it may not be noticed until a spinal image is done. However, if a herniated disc is left untreated, the muscles around the inflamed nerves may weaken. This may cause you to stumble, have difficulty holding objects, or be unable to raise your arm or leg fully.

If you have symptoms such as pain that shoots down your arm or your leg, or if you have any numbness, burning, or weakness in your limbs, see a doctor as soon as possible. If your symptoms take a turn for the worse—such as an increasing loss of sensation, an inability to move properly, or losing bladder or bowel control—see a doctor immediately or go to an emergency room.

Am I at Risk for a Herniated Disc?

Aging and simple wear and tear are the most common causes of herniation, but there are a few risk factors that increase the odds that you’ll suffer from a herniated disc. Some of these factors include:

  • Excessive weight that strains the vertebrae
  • Physically demanding jobs, particularly those that require repetitive movements, pulling, lifting, pushing, bending, or twisting
  • Genetic predisposition—if your family members develop herniated discs, you are more likely to experience them
  • Smoking, which deprives discs of oxygen, causing them to deteriorate faster

Diagnosing a Herniated Disc

If you suspect you have a herniated disc, make an appointment with one of the spine specialists at Arkansas Surgical Hospital for an evaluation. A complete physical exam and a review of your symptoms will be the first step. Your doctor will check for tenderness and ask about your pain level. They will also check your reflexes and ask you to move your arms, neck, and legs in various directions.

X-rays, an MRI, or other imaging tests will be conducted. You may also undergo a nerve induction test, myelogram, electromyography, or CT scan to determine how severe the nerve damage is. These tests will determine which nerves are affected and to what extent.

Treatment Options for Herniated Discs

For those with mild symptoms, modifying your activities and taking an over-the-counter pain medication for a few days or weeks may be all that’s needed. If the pain from your herniated disc doesn’t subside, the doctors at Arkansas Surgical Hospital may offer several options.

Oral Medication

Whether over-the-counter or prescription, a pain medication that alleviates inflammation can help. Common treatments include ibuprofen, naproxen sodium, and acetaminophen. Muscle relaxers can control muscle spasms and allow you to relax and rest. In some situations, opioids may be prescribed, but only briefly.

Physical Therapy

Physical therapy for a herniated disc is often recommended along with oral medications. A therapist will work with you to gently guide you through specific exercises designed to improve movement and minimize pain.

Cortisone Injections

If you don’t respond to oral medications, your doctor may suggest corticosteroid injections into the area around the affected nerves. The cortisone reduces inflammation and allows the body to heal more quickly.

Surgery

If the pain isn’t resolved or significantly reduced within six weeks, you may need surgery for your herniated disc. This is only done if all other options have failed to bring relief. In most situations, surgery isn’t necessary unless your symptoms worsen or you have problems with standing or walking. Loss of bladder or bowel control and loss of feeling are also indications that surgery may be required.

If your doctor does recommend surgery, several procedures can bring relief, including discectomy, laminectomy, spinal fusion, and artificial disc replacement. Surgery for a herniated disc involves stabilizing the spine through bone fusion and stabilizing rods. In some cases, an artificial disc may take the place of the herniated disc.

How Can I Prevent a Herniated Disc?

As you age, it’s essential to care for your back and use it properly. Although there’s no way to be sure that you’ll never develop a herniated disc, you can minimize your risk by:

  • Learning to lift heavy items properly. Don’t bend at the waist—instead, use your knees and keep your back straight.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight.
  • Making sure you maintain good posture.
  • Doing regular stretching exercises, particularly if you sit for extended periods.
  • Exercising several times a week, focusing on strengthening your back and core.
  • Quitting smoking.

Get Help for Your Herniated Disc

The doctors at Arkansas Surgical Hospital have worked with many patients suffering from herniated discs. If you are experiencing pain or suspect you have a problem with one of your discs, contact us at (877) 918-7020 to schedule a consultation.

Photo by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

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