Most adults—an estimated 60 to 80 percent—will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Back pain can be caused by a number of factors, but a herniated disc is one common cause.
What is a herniated disc?
The rubbery cushions that separate the individual bones in the spine (vertebrae) are called discs. These discs are much like a jelly donut—soft at the center, with a tougher exterior. The discs should stack with the vertebra in alignment, but sometimes those donut-like discs slip out of alignment, with the soft center pushing out through the exterior. This is known as a herniated disc, which is also sometimes referred to as a slipped disc or a ruptured disc.
For some people, a herniated disc has no symptoms and isn’t painful at all. For other people, however, a herniated disc can be very painful or irritating, as the ruptured disc can irritate surrounding nerves, causing pain or even weakness or numbness in an arm or leg.
How can you get a herniated disc?
In most cases, a herniated disc is simply the result of aging and wear on the discs. This is called disc degeneration. With age, the spinal discs begin to lose fluid, making them more susceptible to tearing or rupturing.
If you are not careful lifting heavy objects and lift with your back rather than your legs, you may get a herniated disc. Twisting and turning while lifting may also cause a disc to rupture. In rare causes, a herniated disc is the result of trauma to the back, such as a fall or impact.
Those most at risk of a herniated disc include people who are overweight, people who have physically demanding jobs and people with a genetic predisposition to developing herniated discs.
What are the signs of a herniated disc?
Because not all herniated discs cause symptoms, some people may have a slipped disc and not even know it unless it shows up on spinal images. In most cases, however, herniated discs are painful or uncomfortable. Herniated discs can occur in the lower back (lumbar spine) or in the neck (cervical spine), though they typically occur in the lumbar spine. The most common symptoms of a herniated disc are:
- Arm or leg pain. If the herniated disc is in your neck, you may feel pain in your arms or shoulders; if it is in your lower back, you may experience pain in your buttocks, thigh, calf or foot. Pain can shoot through the arm or leg with movement or even a cough or a sneeze.
- Numbness or tingling. Because a ruptured disc can put pressure on surrounding nerves, it is common to experience numbness or tingling in the area of the body that is served by those nerves.
- Weakness. Nerves in the spine serve all the various systems in the body, including the muscular system. Muscles that are served by the nerves affected by the herniated disc may become weak, making it difficult to lift items or even walk.
If you experience any of these symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.
How are herniated discs treated?
Treating a herniated disc is more about treating the symptoms (pain, tingling or numbness and muscle weakness) than treating the ruptured disc itself. In the majority of cases, a herniated disc can be treated with medications such as over-the-counter pain medications or prescription narcotics, nerve pain medications, muscle relaxers or cortisone injections.
Exercise and physical therapy may also be recommended to help improve symptoms from a herniated disc. In severe cases, surgery to remove the herniated portion of the disc may be necessary, and in rare cases, the entire disc may need to be surgically removed. If the disc is removed, the vertebrae may need to be fused together to prevent instability in the spine. Rather than a fusion, some surgeons may recommend implantation of a herniated disc.
You can prevent your spinal discs from rupturing by maintaining a regular exercise routine that includes core-strengthening activities. Keeping good posture and maintaining a healthy weight can also help prevent a herniated disc.
If you think you may have a slipped or herniated disc, contact your doctor today.