What causes a herniated disc?
A herniated disc is a painful condition that can also contribute to numbness or weakness. This condition can occur naturally over time due to degeneration or suddenly due to an injury. Some herniated discs heal naturally.
It is important to be examined by a healthcare provider if your pain continues for more than a few days. Sustained pressure on the spinal cord and nerves can lead to further damage.
What is a herniated disc?
Your spine is made up of 24 bones called vertebrae. Between each of these vertebrae is a shock-absorbing cervical disc that helps to cushion your spine. Your discs consist of an outer layer, known as the annulus, surrounding an inner layer, known as the nucleus.
A herniated disc occurs when the nucleus is pushed through the annulus and into your spinal canal. There is typically some spinal degeneration when a herniated disc occurs.
The majority of herniated discs occur in the five vertebrae that make up your lower spine, also known as the lumbar spine. The pain that you experience with a herniated disc is typically due to the disc pressing on a nerve.
If you have a herniated disc, you might experience symptoms such as:
- A persistent backache lasting more than a couple of days
- Numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness that radiates down your buttocks and legs
- A dull or sharp pain between the shoulder blades
- Numbness, tingling, pain, or weakness that radiates down your arms and hands
- Change in severity of pain with a change in position
Diagnosis for a herniated disc
Only a licensed healthcare professional can diagnose a herniated disc. If you are experiencing symptoms of a herniated disc, your doctor will perform a physical examination.
During this evaluation, you might be asked to walk on your toes and on your heels. Your doctor might check your reflexes and test how much sensation you are experiencing in your legs and feet. You might also undergo a neurological evaluation to check to see if you are experiencing any loss of strength or sensation in your muscles.
If you are experiencing sciatica, your doctor might perform what is called the Straight Leg Test. They will ask you to lie on your back while they lift the leg that hurts. Where you experience pain during this test helps the doctor assess whether or not you have a herniated disc.
If a herniated disc is suspected after performing basic tests, your doctor might order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. This will provide a clear image of your spine and confirm the diagnosis.
Treatments for a herniated disc
Herniated discs typically heal without the need for surgery. It is likely that your doctor will recommend non-surgical options first.
Your doctor might recommend that you reduce your physical activity for a period of anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. This is to reduce the inflammation that is occurring near the nerves.
You might be advised to avoid bending and lifting anything heavy and to stop any physically demanding activities. Complete bed rest for more than two days is usually not recommended.
You may be prescribed a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for mild to moderate pain. If the pain is more severe, your doctor might recommend an epidural steroid injection. This injection takes place with an X-ray guiding the needle into the affected disc.
Physical therapy might be recommended for your herniated disc. This therapy focuses on exercises, stretches, massage, and other treatment options specifically tailored to help patients with herniated discs.
Your treatment plan may actually include a combination of physical therapy, rest, and medications.
If other treatment options do not work for you, your doctor may recommend surgery.
The most common surgical procedure performed for a single herniated disc is called a microdiscectomy. During this procedure, a small incision is made and the surgeon will work to remove the herniated part of the disc. If any other fragments are pressing on your nerves, they will remove those as well.
There are other surgical options for severely herniated discs or the herniation of multiple discs:
- Lumbar laminotomy, the removal of the lamina from your affected vertebrae
- Artificial disc replacement
- Cervical spine surgery
Possible complications and side effects
Once a disc has herniated, you have a 5% to 10% chance of having a repeat disc herniation.
Though surgery is typically not suggested upfront, it is important to speak with your doctor. Try to come to an agreement regarding how long to try non-surgical options if you see no improvement in symptoms.
NSAIDs and other medications may have different side effects. Consult your healthcare provider about possible complications of any medications you might take for your herniated disc.
Possible surgical complications include infection, injury to nerves, dural tear, and the need for follow-up surgery. Discuss the risks and benefits of disc herniation treatments with your doctor.
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons: "Herniated Disc in the Lower Back."
American Association of Neurological Surgeons: "Herniated Disc."
Top How Do You Fix a Herniated Disc Related Articles
Back Pain: Common Spine ProblemsThat stack of little bones along the center of your back has a key role to support and control your body. What happens when something's not right with your spine?
16 Back Pain Truths and MythsWhich mattress is best for back pain? Back pain conditions are very common. Learn the causes of upper and lower back pain. Find the truth and get the facts behind back pain myths, remedies, causes and treatment.
Back Pain QuizThere are numerous causes of chronic lower back pain and only one ailment gets more complaints. What is it? Quiz your knowledge of symptoms, treatments, problems, and reasons for common back pain.
What are the Best Stretches for Back Pain Relief at Home?Learn what stretches can help you deal with back pain and manage this condition at home.
Does Walking Help Degenerative Disc Disease?Degenerative disc disease is a term used to describe conditions in which there is progressive damage to the intervertebral discs. Walking can help treat degenerative disc disease since it's a mild form of physical therapy, which is good for your spine and joints.
Low Back Pain: 11 Stretches & Exercises for ReliefOne of the best low back pain treatments is exercise. Whether your pain is in the lower left or lower right back, learn more about low back pain exercises--what works, and what doesn't. Discover severe low back pain relief through various gentle workouts designed to protect and strengthen the lumbar, core, and other related back muscle groups.
Herniated DiscA herniated disc may be caused by injury or degeneration from age. Symptoms depend on the location of the herniation and whether nerve tissue is being irritated. An MRI or CT scan is performed to diagnose a herniated disc. Treatment may involve physical therapy, cortisone injection, pain medications, anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxants, and surgery.
Low Back Pain (Lumbar Spine Pain)There are many causes of back pain. Pain in the low back can relate to the bony lumbar spine, discs between the vertebrae, ligaments around the spine and discs, spinal cord and nerves, muscles of the low back, internal organs of the pelvis and abdomen, and the skin covering the lumbar area.
Low Back Pain ReliefDo you suffer from low back pain? Learn more about common triggers of lower back pain like posture, exercise, and spondylosis. Find out about pain relief treatments like massage, yoga, stretching, exercises for back pain, and chiropractic medicine. See when surgery for back pain makes sense.
What Are the Best Exercises for Back Pain?When you are experiencing back pain, you may want to rest, but being active is good for the back. Exercising can strengthen the muscles of the back and those that support posture, as well as improve overall body health. Strengthening the muscles provides support to the spine and slowly reduces back pain.
What Are the Best Stretches for Lower Back Pain?Lower back pain is one of the common types of complaints by the general population. It may happen due to poor posture, injury, stress, or poor sleeping facilities.
What Can I Do To Relieve Upper Back Pain?Learn what medical treatments can help ease your upper back pain symptoms and help you manage this condition.
What Could Be the Cause of Upper Back Pain?There are many potential upper back pain causes. Learn about upper back pain, why upper back pain happens, and how upper back pain is treated.
What Is the Best Exercise for Back Pain?We are often a bit negligent toward our back while doing chores or physical exercise. While the causes for back pain may vary, regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight are crucial for keeping the back healthy.
What Is the Fastest Way to Heal a Herniated Disc?A herniated disc occurs when the soft center of a vertebral disc, called the nucleus, leaks out of a tear in the casing of the spinal column. There is no quick fix for a herniated disc but avoiding activities that aggravate pain and taking over-the-counter pain relievers may help.