Herniated Disk Causes & Treatments

Herniated Disc: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments

What is a herniated disc?

Between each of the 24 vertebrae in your spine, rubbery spinal discs act as cushions between the vertebrae. These discs act as shock absorbers in your spine to keep you comfortable while you move, run, jump, bend, etc. Without your spinal discs, the bones in your spine would rub together, causing pain and limiting your movement.

Each of these spinal discs is made of a soft, jelly-like substance called the nucleus surrounded by a tougher exterior shell called the annulus. When the annulus ruptures and some of the jelly-like inside pushes outside the disc, this is called a herniated disc. It’s also referred to as a slipped disc, a ruptured disc, or a prolapsed disc.

What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?

You may have a herniated disc and not even know it. Some people experience no symptoms of a herniated disc.

When a herniated disc irritates a nearby nerve, this is when symptoms occur. When you have a herniated disc that is irritating a nerve or nerves, you may experience:

  • Pain that extends into your arms and legs
  • Pain that is worse at night
  • Pain with certain movements
  • Pain that affects only one side of the body
  • Pain when walking
  • Pain that gets worse after standing or sitting
  • Muscle weakness

What’s the difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc?

A bulging disc is not the same as a herniated disc. With a bulging disc, the disc itself has become flattened and bulges out between the vertebrae. There is no tear involved in a bulging disc, as the outer layer of the disc itself is intact. A bulging disc may push out evenly all the way around, but it’s more common for only part of the disc to bulge.

With a herniated disc, the soft inner portion of the disc bulges out though a tear in the outer layer.

What causes a herniated disc?

As we age, our discs weaken and become less flexible in a natural process called disc degeneration. This weakness makes them more likely to tear as a result of minor twists, turns, or movements. Certain activities can also make a herniated disc more likely to occur. Lifting a heavy object with the back instead of the legs is a common cause of herniated discs.

Risk factors for herniated discs

Some people are more likely to experience a ruptured disc than others. Some things that make you more likely to rupture a disc include:

  • Smoking – Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen to all the tissues in your body, including the discs in your spine. This lack of oxygen is thought to play a role in speeding up the degeneration process of spinal discs, making them more likely to tear.
  • Genetics – Some people are simply born with discs that have a weaker exterior or degrade faster than others.
  • Profession – People with jobs that require constant lifting, pushing, pulling, or twisting are more likely to experience a herniated disc.
  • Being Overweight – Excess weight puts additional strain on the discs of the spine, making them more prone to rupturing.

Treatments for a herniated disc

If your herniated disc pain isn’t severe, OTC pain relievers and avoiding movements that cause herniated disc pain often resolve symptoms in days or weeks. For more severe pain, other methods may be prescribed, such as:

  • Cortisone injections – Corticosteroid shots can be injected around the nerves that are irritated by your bulging disc, numbing them and relieving your herniated disc pain for a period of time.
  • Muscle relaxers – If your ruptured disc is causing muscle spasms, muscle relaxers may be prescribed.
  • Opioids – If the above herniated disc treatments are not effective, you may be prescribed opioid painkillers. Doctors refrain from prescribing opioids if at all possible because of the risk of dependency. In addition, opioids also come with a range of negative side effects such as nausea, dizziness, sleepiness and constipation.
  • Physical therapy – A physical therapist can teach you how to do everyday movements in ways that don’t aggravate your herniated disc pain.

Herniated disc surgery

When more conservative herniated disc treatments don’t provide the right level of relief, herniated disc surgery may the right option. Your surgeon may recommend one or a combination of these surgeries to relieve your herniated disc pain.

The most common herniated disc surgery is called a discectomy. In a discectomy, your surgeon will remove the portion of the disc that is protruding and causing your herniated disc pain and weakness.

In some cases, the entire disc must be removed and the vertebrae on each side fused together with spinal fusion surgery. This surgery involves using a piece of your own bone or a bone graft from a donor to fuse the vertebrae together. While the healing process is occurring over several months, pins and/or screws will hold your spine in place for proper healing and stability.

In a laminectomy, your surgeon will go in and relieve the pressure on the affected nerves by making an opening in your vertebral arch, called the lamina.

Herniated disc keeping you from the things you love?

Make an appointment with Tennessee Orthopaedic Clinics today. You don’t have to suffer when help is right in your hometown. Call us today.