What is a Herniated Disc?
Do you know that a common cause of neck, back and leg pain is a herniated disc?
A disc (often called a spinal disc or intervertebral disc) is a cushion that sits between the vertebrae of your spine. The disc is like a jelly donut, with a gel like inside and a tougher outside.
Herniated discs happen when a tear in the annulus (the protective outside covering of the disc) allows the gel-like center (called the nucleus) to ooze out and possibly irritate or place pressure on a nerve. Other terms that you may have heard for this problem are disc bulge or ‘slipped disc’ (although no slipping occurs). These terms may be used interchangeably and at times differ depending on where they occur – cervical spine vs lumbar spine for example.
When discs become herniated, this is an early sign of deterioration. But most of the time, herniated disks heal on their own or with simple conservative measures.
Signs and Symptoms of Herniated Disc
Herniated discs are not always easy to detect, as it is sometimes asymptomatic. You might not even find out until it shows up on a spinal image. Generally, herniated discs affect one side of the body. They occur either in the neck or in the lower back, although the latter occurs more frequently. Signs and symptoms vary depending on where the disc is positioned and if the disc is compressing the nerve.
The common symptoms of a herniated lumbar disc include:
Lower back pain
This type of pain is dull, throbbing and at times accompanied by stiffness.
The pain that radiates along the path of the large sciatic nerve in the back of the leg is called sciatica or radiculopathy. Typically, this pain is worse than low back pain.
This is characterized by difficulty lifting the foot when walking or standing on the ball of the foot.
These include numbness, weakness, tingling and/or pins-and-needles in the lower extremities (leg, foot, and/or toes).
The common symptoms of herniated cervical disc include:
Pain that is specifically in the back and on the sides of the neck. Pain close to or through the shoulder blades.
Pain that radiates into the upper extremities – the shoulder, arm, hands and fingers.
Numbness, tingling or weakness of the arms or hands.
What Causes Herniated Disc?
Disc herniation can often be caused by an injury or extreme strain. This can cause an immediate ‘tearing’ of the spinal disc. Another cause is disc degeneration due to aging. Certain individuals may also be more prone to disc problems. Researchers have also indicated that a predilection for herniated discs may exist in families with several members affected.
Aging is found to be a major contributor to herniated disc. When we age, our spinal discs gradually lose fluid volume and tear, creating an opening for the gel-like interior, causing pressure and pain. This is also known as degenerative disc disease.
Lifting heavy objects and repetitive or extreme bending or twisting for work or sports can strain or overstress a spinal disc. A deep impact trauma such as a vehicular accident or fall can also rupture a disc.
Obesity leads many older adults into chronic pain conditions such as herniated discs. Carrying an extra load in the stomach area causes the pelvis to incline forward, arching your lower spine. This change in position creates tension on the fibers within discs. The wear-and-tear effect causes fatigue and pain and may lead to complete rupture.
How Herniated Disc is Diagnosed?
A thorough examination and assessment of your pain, muscle reflexes and strength and sensation is conducted to be able to diagnose a herniated disk. Your healthcare provider may also request these tests:
Getting an x-ray helps rule out other possible causes of neck or back pain.
Electromyogram is a test that evaluates nerve function and helps determine which nerve a herniated disc affects. This is done by inserting needles into the muscles.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging is considered the most precise imaging test for a suspected herniated disc.
How Herniated Disc is Treated?
Undergoing invasive procedures to treat herniated discs should be the last option. Typically, pain from herniated disc can be managed through a combination of conservative care options for at least the first six weeks of discomfort and pain. This may include chiropractic treatment and activity modification to improve posture, strength and flexibility. With conservative treatments, many patients who have herniated discs respond well and heal and see an improvement in their symptoms.
Activity and Lifestyle Modification
Doctors may advise patients to maintain low-impact activities and avoid strenuous exercises for a few days to several weeks to help decrease the inflammation of the spinal nerve. Bedrest is not recommended as it can lead to muscle tightness and weakness. Losing some pounds can help ease herniated disc pain. Avoid sitting for too long. Quitting smoking or vaping have proven health benefits like decreasing the risk factor for progressive disc disease that targets the lower back and neck.
In some cases, if the pain becomes too much to handle, a physician can prescribe pain medication to help alleviate the pain symptoms while you are managing your problem through conservative methods.
Strength, Flexibility and Education.
Strength and flexibility plays a vital role in the treatment and recovery of herniated discs. Its methods not only provide relief but educate patients on the value of good body mechanics (such as proper lifting) to prevent further injury on the disc. The therapist conducts a thorough assessment and develops a treatment plan, based on the doctor’s diagnosis. A variety of physical therapy techniques for herniated disc includes gentle massage, ice and heat therapy, pelvic traction, ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation and stretching exercises.
Conclusion on Disc Herniation
The treatment plan should be individualized for each patient, based on the root of the pain, its severity and specific symptoms that the patient manifests. For most patients who have a disc herniation, conservative treatment, such as chiropractic care, will help to resolve their problem. For patients who do not find relief from conservative treatments, surgery may be considered an option. The chiropractors at N8 Family Chiropractic are available to evaluate you for pain and symptoms related to a herniated disc.
Schedule for Herniated Disc Treatment at N8 Family Chiropractic