Herniated discs, also known as slipped or ruptured discs or spinal disc herniation, are a sometimes painful condition that occurs within the rubbery pads that cushion the vertebrae.
These discs, which resemble jelly donuts, are composed of a thick fibrous exterior surrounding an inner core of viscous protein gel. When cracks or tears form in the tough outer ring of these cushions, the soft, central portion — or the “jelly” of the disc — can bulge out.
Most disc herniation occurs in the lumbar spine, or lower back, though it can frequently develop in the neck or cervical spine as well. This condition is typically painful, with lumbar herniation affecting the buttocks and legs, and cervical herniation causing pain in the arms and shoulders.
Numbing, tingling and muscle weakness are common symptoms.
Causes of Herniated Discs
The spinal discs serve as shock absorbers for the spine, to reduce friction and facilitate movement.
As we age, the discs begin to weaken and degrade due to normal wear and tear on the spine. The cushions also lose some of the water content in the inner gel core, making the discs more brittle and prone to cracking or rupturing.
Age-related disc degeneration is considered to be the principal cause of most cases of herniated discs, but other factors may contribute to the condition.
Repetitive stress to the spine or continually sitting for long periods of time may make tears in these cushions more likely to develop. In addition, tobacco use, poor nutrition and an unhealthy body weight may strain the spinal components further.
Herniated Disc Diagnosis
Sometimes, herniated discs will cause no symptoms and may be diagnosed only when spinal images are taken for another reason.
If symptoms are present and a disc herniation is suspected, however, the doctor will take a medical history and perform a physical exam of the back. During the exam, the patient may be asked to move into various positions to determine the scope and location of pain.
The doctor may also test muscle strength, sensory function, reflexes and walking ability. To rule out other causes of pain, or to confirm the diagnosis and evaluate the patient’s condition, imaging tests such as X-rays, a CT scan or an MRI and nerve testing may be ordered.
Treatment for Herniated Discs
In some mild cases, conservative treatments can alleviate symptoms.
It can be helpful to avoid painful positions and follow an exercise plan recommended by a physical therapist. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as naproxen and ibuprofen may help relieve pain.
If symptoms persist, narcotic drugs, muscle relaxants or nerve pain medications may be prescribed. For some patients with herniated discs, corticosteroid injections into area of the affected spinal nerves can be beneficial.
In more severe cases, in which patients have difficulty standing or walking or experience bladder and bowel control issues, surgery can used to effectively reduce or alleviate symptoms.
If you experience spinal pain or discomfort, it is important to have a medical evaluation as soon as possible. Treating spinal problems in the early stages of development can prevent further damage and pain.
Contact Steward Health Care: Centers of Orthopedic & Sports Medicine today for a full medical evaluation for any spinal or orthopedic pain, including herniated discs.