Tearing is usually not a good thing – and even more so when it’s a disc in your spine. Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center, often sees patients with torn discs, also known as herniated or ruptured discs, and helps determine the best approach to treating the common spine condition.
What’s a torn disc? Using a comparison to a jelly donut, a torn disc occurs when the tough outer shell of a vertebral disc (the annulus fibrosis) cracks or tears, letting the jelly-like inner core (the nucleus pulposus) seep out and press on surrounding spinal nerves. This tear can occur in the neck or lower back, but many tears are unavoidable, Dr. Liu says.
“Most torn discs simply result from the degeneration of our spinal columns as we get older,” explains Dr. Liu. “Typically, by the age of 30, our discs have already begun to weaken and lose their flexibility, making them more prone to cracking and splitting.
“Once this occurs, simple traumas such as twisting or bending may be all that’s needed to tear the outer shell of a vertebral disc,” he adds. “But traumatic injuries from sports or car accidents can cause even health discs to tear in people of all ages.”
5 tips for coping with a torn disc
Sometimes patients with torn discs won’t even feel them, which is the best-case scenario, Dr. Liu notes. But if symptoms develop near the neck or lower back – including pain, numbness, tingling, weakness or muscle spasms – a proactive plan to heal the torn disc(s) can be put in place.
Before that happens, however, a proper diagnosis is needed to successfully approach managing and treating a torn disc, Dr. Liu notes. Advanced diagnostic and mapping techniques, such as those done at Atlantic Spine, can pinpoint whether a torn disc or another issue is causing neck or back problems.
Once a torn disc is diagnosed, patients can try these non-surgical approaches to cope with the condition:
- Painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen or naproxen, or prescription-strength medications and muscle relaxants
- Heat and cold therapy that may alternate the two
- Physical therapy to teach exercises and positions designed to minimize the pain
- Stretching and gentle exercise, since too much rest can lead to stiff joints and weakened muscles
- Steroid injections using inflammation-suppressing cortisone can be given directly into the area surrounding the spinal nerves
Surgery an option when other treatments fail
Surgery is only chosen after all other non-surgical treatments have been attempted, and usually only after 6 to 8 weeks of coping mechanisms haven’t improved the condition. “Patients who are having trouble with daily activities such as standing or walking are the best candidates for a surgical approach,” notes Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in minimally invasive spine surgery.
Several types of surgery might be deemed appropriate, depending on the specifics of a patient’s case, but most are minimally invasive procedures that offer tiny incisions, less pain and scarring, and a quick recovery.
Discectomy is the most common surgical treatment for ruptured or herniated discs, particularly in the lower back, and is also used higher up on the spine, according to national statistics. Endoscopic discectomy, which requires just a small incision compared to traditional “open” surgery, is an increasingly popular option to achieve pain relief with minimal downtime.
“A torn disc doesn’t have to shred your lifestyle along with it,” Dr. Liu says. “Whether we approach it non-surgically or surgically, most patients can expect to return to their daily lives with gusto.”