Our spines are made up of a series of vertebrae (spine bones) stacked one on top of another. Between each of the vertebrae are shock-absorbing cushions called spinal discs. They prevent the vertebrae from scraping against one another as we move. Each disc has a tough exterior with a soft center.
A herniated disc, sometimes called a ruptured or slipped disc, occurs when a crack in the outer surface of the disc permits some of the softer cushioning material to bulge outwards. The herniated disc often irritates surrounding nerves and can produce weakness or numbness in an arm or leg, as well as considerable pain. On occasion, a herniated disc is not painful and displays no apparent symptoms.
What are the common symptoms of a herniated disc?
Not every herniated disc produces painful symptoms. Some patients have no symptoms at all, but more often than not, they are painful. Most herniated discs are located in the lower (lumbar) back or, less frequently, in the neck (cervical) region.
Symptoms and signs of a herniated disc reflect the damaged disc’s location. When the problem is centered in your lower back, the most severe pain will be felt in your thigh and buttocks and leg below the knee. Pain may even radiate down to your foot.
When a neck disc is herniated, the pain will be centered in your arm and shoulder. When you move your spine in certain ways, sneeze or cough, a shooting pain may travel to your leg or arm. A herniated disc can produce tingling and numbness in the area served by the nerves it has damaged. These compromised nerves may also result in muscle weakness, inhibiting your ability to hold or lift items or causing you to stumble.
What is the cause of a herniated disc?
The normal wear and tear of aging produces gradual degeneration of your spinal discs. Herniated or Bulging DiscOver time, these miniature shock absorbers lose some of their cushioning fluid. They become increasingly inflexible and are more inclined to tear or rupture when strained or twisted.
Most patients are unable to identify the precise moment they ruptured their disc. Often turning and twisting while lifting or using only back muscles instead of thigh and leg muscles to lift heavy weights is to blame. Very infrequently, a blow to the spine or a fall results in a herniated disc.
Should I see my doctor if I believe I have a herniated disc?
Contact your Orange County pain management doctor if you realize you are beginning to lose sensation in the back of your legs, your inner thighs and the area around your rectum. If you find it difficult to urinate even when your bladder is full or become incontinent, seek medical attention. If weakness, numbness or pain has increased beyond the point where you can function normally, reach out your doctor for help.
How is a herniated disc diagnosed?
Usually a physical examination combined with your medical history is sufficient to enable an accurate diagnosis at an OC pain management clinic.
However, if your Santa Ana pain doctor is concerned there may be other contributing factors or wishes to identify which specific nerves have been affected, testing may be recommended. X-rays can help eliminate alternative causes, including a broken bone, spinal misalignment, a tumor or an infection.
Computerized tomography ( CT scan) enables your doctor to study images of your spinal column in cross section. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) produces images of your internal body structures and serves to provide confirmation of the location of your herniated disc and the nerves which it is affecting. A nerves test such as a nerve conduction study/electromyogram (EMG/NCV) can gauge the efficiency with which electrical signals travel through your nervous system and can help zero in on nerve-damage locations.
How is a herniated disc treated?
Surgery is rarely required to repair a herniated disc. The easiest form of treatment – Herniated or Bulging Disc Treatmentavoiding painful movement, sticking to a prescribed exercise regimen and taking pain medications – will relieve almost all symptoms associated with a herniated disc.
This approach usually produces results in a month or two. Imaging technology has shown that a displaced or protruding disc becomes smaller over time and that its symptoms are reduced accordingly.
Over-the-counter medication can be helpful in minimizing moderate pain; however large doses have been known to cause liver damage or gastrointestinal bleeding. When over-the-counter medications fail to minimize your pain, your Orange County pain doctor may prescribe narcotics for a brief period of time.
However, possible side effects may include constipation, confusion, nausea, or sedation.
There are a series of medications engineered to minimize pain caused by nerve damage (Lyrica or Neurontin), and muscle relaxants can help eliminate limb or back spasms. Cortisone injections can suppress inflammation around irritated nerves.
What can I do to prevent a herniated disc?
Herniated discs occur most frequently in people age 35 to 45, as normal disc degeneration that comes with aging begins to take its toll. Regular exercises to keep muscles strong and tendons limber will help prevent damage to the spine.
Eliminating extra body weight reduces unnecessary stress on spinal discs in the lumbar region. And taking extra precautions when lifting repeatedly, pushing, pulling, twisting or bending sideways will help you avoid a herniated disc.