Back pain can be an indicator to a whole slew of different diagnoses - some more mild than others - but there’s often a list of common causes and problems for developed back pain. One of these terms that pop up on nearly every broad search for pain in the back is a herniated disc. Also known as a ruptured disc, sometimes termed a slipped disc, and usually confused with a bulging disc, a herniated disc can often be the culprit of back pain due to its dealings with the nerves surrounding the spinal discs.
What is a Herniated Disc?
In between each vertebra, there lies a cushiony layer of protective material to keep the bones of the vertebrae from rubbing together and to minimize impact and shock to the spine. These discs contain two components: a tough, outer layer of tissue called the annulus fibrosus and a jelly-esque, inner fluid called the nucleus pulposus. When that inner fluid pushes against its protective wall - oftentimes due to sudden trauma or from wear-and-tear of the spine - a bulging disc forms.
Bulging discs are seen as less serious than herniated discs because a bulging disc usually doesn’t cause pain unless the bulge reaches the nerves around the disc and rubs against them. A bulging disc becomes a herniated disc when a crack, hole, or tear develops in the annulus fibrosus wall that keeps the fluid in. Without that encompassing wall to stop it, the nucleus pulposus fluid leaks out of the spinal disc and into the spinal canal around it, causing a chemical irritant to come into contact with the spinal nerves.
This nerve irritation is what actually causes the symptoms of a herniated disc: pain, numbness, or weakness in one or both of the legs (also known as sciatica).
What Causes Herniated Discs?
Herniated discs can be caused by a myriad of different factors - some of them out of your control. It can develop from general, day-to-day wear and tear disc degeneration, which is seen in nearly 90% of people after the age of 60, sudden impact or trauma, or earlier in life from repetitive, heavy lifting, or spine-centric activities. Which is why, as the weight-bearing center of the body, the lower-back is at most risk for a herniated disc, even if they can develop in any part of the back.
As you age, the spinal discs separating your vertebrae lose some of their elasticity and toughness through water loss, causing them to shrink and the spaces between bones to narrow, which increases how prone the discs are to herniation.
Other factors that contribute to this herniation inclination can include:
● Not using proper lifting form (using the back to lift instead of the legs)
● Repetitive overuse of the back
● A sedentary lifestyle
● Frequent, long periods of driving
● Being overweight
● Gender (men aged 30-60 are at more risk, and should, therefore, take more precautionary measures)
How Do I Know If I Have a Herniated Disc?
Herniated discs, as mentioned before, can share a lot of symptoms with other, similar back problems - so how do you know if it’s a herniated disc?
While herniated discs can easily be identified with imaging tests, like an X-Ray or MRI, your doctor or a spine specialist might be able to diagnose you with a simple physical exam to study pain associated with certain movements, your reflexes, your leg strength, your ability to perform everyday activities, and spinal sensitivity -all non-intrusive methods to diagnosing a herniated disc.
How is a Herniated Disc Treated?
Luckily, herniated discs, as painful as they sound, resolve themselves for the most part- 90% of those affected with herniated discs report the problem correcting itself. Treatment can range anywhere from bedrest and over-the-counter pain or anti-inflammatory medications to specialized physical therapy to surgery, in rare cases.
After resting and recovery, however, there are still risks and precautions should be taken so that the hazard of re-herniation declines.
1. Regulate your activities while recovering
Even if you lead an active lifestyle, it’s important to give your body time to heal completely, even after the pain has gone away. This means taking a break from any activity that is strenuous or tends to use the back a lot.
2. Try not to sit for long periods of time
If you work a sedentary job, take small breaks to get up and move so that you promote the healthy repair and movement of the spinal disc. If you find yourself driving, take breaks at rest stops, even if you don’t normally take them, so that you can give your body the proper means to heal.
3. Take small steps to integrate back into normal life
Jumping back in full-force to daily activities may increase your risk of another disc herniation. By completing activities at a slow and controlled pace, you give yourself a better chance of complete healing and proper re-strengthening.
4. Consider steroidal injections if the pain doesn’t go away
If the pain persists, before any surgical options are considered, corticosteroid injections may alleviate your pain. This is a common treatment for other back problems, such as degenerative disc disease, spondylitis, and other forms of arthritis.
If you are experiencing back or neck pain and are concerned that you may be suffering from a herniated disc or some other medical condition, you may benefit from finding an innovative spine physician. Dr. Venu Vemuri, at miiSpine, is an award-winning doctor focused on providing a comprehensive treatment approach towards all types of back conditions and pain. For additional information or to schedule an appointment, call the Louisville, Kentucky miiSpine office today at: (502) 242-6370.