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A disc is a part of your spine found between your vertebrae. These discs absorb impact to help prevent injury and enable a full range of motion. Their tough, rubbery exterior and soft, jelly-like interior are a gentle landing mat for your spinal bones. They help protect your spine from being seriously damaged in situations like a fall, car accident, or even just normal wear and tear.
A herniated disc occurs when a crack forms in the disc’s hard exterior, allowing part of the soft inner nucleus to leak out. Many people with a herniated disc have no symptoms and aren’t even aware of their condition, but sometimes the herniated disc irritates a nearby nerve, resulting in pain and even numbness or tingling.
A “bulging disc” refers to a similar (but less advanced) version of a herniated disc. A bulging disc means that a disc’s outer layer of tough cartilage has been damaged — but not enough to allow the soft inner cartilage to seep out. A herniated disc, on the other hand, affects both the outer and inner portion of the disc and is much more likely to cause pain.
You may have also heard the terms “ruptured” or “slipped disc.” These terms are often used interchangeably with the term “herniated disc,” however, they actually describe different things. Though small parts of a disc may rupture or slip, an entire disc cannot since it is fused to the vertebrae.
The most common symptom of a herniated disc is lower back pain or neck pain, but the intensity can vary greatly depending on the position of the herniated disc and the extent of the damage. Most patients with a herniated disc experience an intense episode of back pain or endure longer, more intermittent episodes of pain.
Additional symptoms may vary depending on which part of your body is affected.
Some patients with a herniated disc may have no symptoms at all. These patients may never know they have the condition or it may appear on a routine scan during a doctor’s visit.
Normal aging is the number one cause of disc herniation. As we age, our disc material wears down, and the ligaments that hold it in place weaken. From a relatively young age, we gradually begin to lose the spongy disc material that helps our spine absorb shock. This natural wear and tear means that even a minor strain or twist can cause a disc to herniate.
Most people aren’t able to pinpoint the exact cause of their herniated disc. Rarely, though, a traumatic event such as a fall, car accident, or blow to the back can cause a herniated disc. In these cases, the herniated disc will likely be diagnosed in early treatment for the trauma.
Though disc herniation is relatively common — about 2% of the population experiences it each year. A variety of factors may make a person more likely to experience it in their lifetime.
If you’ve experienced disc herniation and want to avoid the pain and discomfort in the future — or if you want to get ahead of a possible herniated disc — there are several preventive measures you can take.
Quit smoking: Smoking can have adverse effects on far more than just your lungs. Giving up tobacco will increase the amount of oxygen being pumped to various parts of your body, including your spine.
Millions of people suffer from lower back pain, with a wide variety of causes. Conditions that may mimic the symptoms of disc herniation include arthritis, osteoporosis, cervicalgia, compression fracture, degenerative disc disease, muscle strain, and more.
Because many of these conditions involve overlapping symptoms, it’s best to consult a spinal health specialist to help you find the right diagnosis and treatment plan.
If pain is seriously affecting your life, you should never try to suffer through it. Seek medical care if:
A doctor with experience in spinal health can help diagnose your condition and explore a variety of treatment options — both surgical and non-surgical.
As with any type of back pain, the first step to finding herniated disc relief is to take it easy. Start with easy home remedies like over-the-counter medication, gentle movement, and alternating hot and cold packs. Bed rest is not recommended, as inactivity can actually make back pain worse.
A painful herniated disc is often treated with an epidural steroid injection, a minimally invasive procedure that can provide relief for mild neck and back pain. A doctor will administer the injection under live X-ray in order to deliver the medication to a highly specific area. This can help reduce inflammation and improve pain and discomfort, providing relief for up to a year.
Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy, which may include stretching, muscle stimulation, gentle massage, ultrasound, and other methods. To achieve the best results, pair physical therapy with additional home remedies and lifestyle changes.
Some herniated discs require surgery. Your doctor will likely try to exhaust all other treatment options before considering a surgical option. You may be a candidate for surgery if you continue to have severe pain, numbness or weakness, and reduced movement after six weeks of treatment.
Herniated disc surgery involves removing the protruding portion of the disc. In the unlikely event that the entire disc needs to be removed, a spinal specialist can replace it with an artificial disc to relieve pain and preserve the motion of your cervical spine.
As you continue to manage your disc herniation, the key is to take good care of your body — specifically your spine.
Consider additional treatments. Some patients have found that alternative medicine such as chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage provide additional relief.