Back & Neck Conditions
Herniated Disc: Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis and Prevention
A herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc or a ruptured disc, is a condition in which the soft inner material of a spinal disc protrudes through a crack or tear in the outer layer of the disc. This can put pressure on the nearby nerves and cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the affected area.
Herniated discs can occur anywhere along the spine, but are most common in the lower back (lumbar spine) and the neck (cervical spine). They are more common in people over the age of 35 and are more likely to occur in individuals who engage in physically demanding activities, such as heavy lifting, twisting, or bending.
A herniated disc happens when the inner disc material, called the nucleus, seeps through the tough outer wall of the disc. It becomes symptomatic when it comes into contact with surrounding nerves causing pain and other herniated disc symptoms to be felt locally and along the nerves path. In the article, we’ll discuss herniated disc meaning, types, symptoms, causes, diagnosis, as well as treatment options and prevention.
Herniated Disc Types
1.) Contained Disc Herniation: The disc is considered contained if the inner material of the disc has not pushed through its outer wall. It is also sometimes referred to as a contained disc herniation.
2.) Extruded Disc Herniation: The disc is considered extruded if the inner material has broken through its outer wall but is still attached to the disc. It is also sometimes referred to as an extruded disc herniation.
3.) Sequestered Disc Herniation: If the nucleus has pushed through the annulus and broken away from the disc it is known as a sequestered disc.
The only difference between a herniated disc in the back and a herniated disc in the neck is that the first will give you pain and symptoms in the neck, shoulder, and arms, while the other will present with symptoms in the lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet. In a healthy disc, you can notice that the outer wall is thick and tough. As disc degeneration starts to set in this wall will start to thin and dry out allowing for the possibility of cracks or tears. Once a tear or a crack occurs the disc can herniate as the inner materials come through and place pressure on surrounding structures.
Herniated Disc Causes
A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when the soft inner portion of a spinal disc pushes through a tear in the outer layer. While there is no single cause of a herniated disk, several factors can contribute to the development of this condition.
As we age, the discs in our spine lose some of their water content, making them less flexible and more prone to rupturing. Some people may inherit a predisposition to developing bulging discs. Excess weight can put extra pressure on the discs in your spine, increasing the risk of a slipped disc in back.
A sudden impact or injury to the spine can cause a slipped disc. This may be the result of a fall, a car accident, or a sports injury. Repetitive movements or activities that put pressure on the spine, such as lifting heavy objects or twisting the back repeatedly, can increase the risk of a bulging disc in back.
Smoking can reduce the oxygen supply to the discs in your spine, making them more prone to injury. Also, sitting or standing for long periods in a slouched position can put additional stress on the spine, increasing the risk of disc herniation.
Pain is the most common slipped disc symptom. It can range from a dull ache to a sharp, stabbing pain that radiates down the arm or leg. This herniated disk symptom may worsen with movement, such as bending over, sitting, or standing for long periods.
A herniated disc can put pressure on the nerves in the spine, causing numbness or tingling in the affected area. For example, a herniated disc in the lower back may cause numbness or tingling in the legs, while one in the neck may cause herniated disc symptoms in the arms. Also, a herniated disc can cause the muscles in the affected area to become tight and painful.
In severe cases, a herniated disc can cause weakness in the affected area. For example, a herniated disc in the lower back may cause weakness in the legs, while one in the neck may cause weakness in the arms. If a herniated disc in the lower back is pressing on the sciatic nerve, it can cause sciatica. Sciatica is a condition that causes pain, numbness, or tingling in the buttocks and legs.
Diagnosing a herniated disc typically involves a combination of physical examination, medical history, and imaging tests.
Firstly, your doctor will examine your spine for any signs of tenderness, range of motion, and any neurological changes. This will include testing your reflexes, strength, and sensation.
Then your doctor will ask you about your symptoms, medical history, and any previous spine or back injuries.
Imaging tests are usually needed to confirm the diagnosis and identify the location and severity of the herniation.
The most commonly used imaging tests:
- X-rays can detect bone abnormalities, such as bone spurs or fractures.
- MRI uses a magnetic field and radio waves to create detailed images of the body. MRI is the most commonly used imaging test for a herniated disc.
- CT scan uses X-rays to create detailed images of the body. It is useful for identifying bone abnormalities or if MRI is not suitable for the patient.
- Nerve conduction study measures the electrical signals that travel along the nerves to assess nerve damage.
Once the diagnosis is confirmed, treatment options will be discussed with the patient. Treatment options for a herniated disc depend on the severity of the condition, location, and the individual patient's medical history. Treatment options may include rest, pain medication, physical therapy, epidural injections, or surgery in severe cases.
For mild cases of a herniated disc, rest and self-care measures such as applying ice or heat to the affected area, gentle stretching, and over-the-counter pain medications can help alleviate symptoms.
Physical therapy can help strengthen the muscles around the affected area, improve flexibility, and reduce pain.
Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen may be recommended to reduce pain and inflammation. In severe cases, prescription pain medications or muscle relaxants may be prescribed.
In some cases, an epidural injection may be recommended to help reduce inflammation and pain around the affected area.
If other treatments are not effective, or if the herniated disc is causing severe pain or neurological symptoms, surgery may be recommended. The most common surgery for a herniated disc is a discectomy, which involves removing the herniated portion of the disc.
It's important to remember that treatment for a herniated disc should be tailored to the individual patient and their specific condition. If you're experiencing symptoms of a herniated disc, it's important to seek medical attention from a healthcare professional who can assess your condition and recommend the appropriate treatment options.
While there is no foolproof way to prevent a herniated disc, there are several steps you can take to reduce your risk of developing this condition.
Here are some tips for herniated disc prevention:
- Maintain good posture: Poor posture can put extra pressure on the spine, increasing the risk of a herniated disc. Practice good posture when sitting, standing, and walking.
- Exercise regularly: Regular exercise can help strengthen the muscles around the spine, reducing the risk of a herniated disc. Focus on exercises that strengthen the core muscles, such as yoga, Pilates, and weightlifting.
- Use proper lifting techniques: When lifting heavy objects, use your legs rather than your back to lift. Keep the object close to your body and avoid twisting your spine while lifting.
- Maintain a healthy weight: Excess weight puts extra strain on the spine, increasing the risk of a herniated disc. Maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce this risk.
- Avoid smoking: Smoking can contribute to the degeneration of spinal discs, increasing the risk of a herniated disc.
- Take breaks when sitting: Prolonged sitting can put extra pressure on the spine, increasing the risk of a herniated disc. Take frequent breaks to stand up and stretch.
- Practice stress management: Chronic stress can contribute to muscle tension and poor posture, increasing the risk of a herniated disc. Practice stress management techniques, such as meditation or deep breathing, to help reduce stress levels.
So, prevention measures for herniated discs include maintaining good posture, exercising regularly, using proper lifting techniques, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding smoking, taking breaks when sitting, and practicing stress management techniques. By following these herniated disc prevention tips, you can help reduce your risk of developing this condition. If you are experiencing symptoms of a herniated disc, it's important to seek medical attention from a healthcare professional who can assess your condition and recommend the appropriate treatment options.