What happens when a disc becomes herniated?
A disc becomes herniated when its gel-like center begins pushing outward against the fibrous outer layer, causing a bulge that can cause significant low back pain. In some cases, the outer layer bursts, allowing some of the gel to leak out. Once that happens, the nerves leading to the legs often become irritated, causing numbness, aching pain or sharp, shock-like pain to extend from the back through the buttock and down the leg.
What causes disc herniation?
There are several factors that can cause a disc to become herniated. Injury is one common cause. When we fall or have some other type of injury that causes an impact to the spine, the vertebrae become compressed, squeezing the discs and potentially causing bulges or leaks to occur.
But in many cases, discs become herniated as a result of the aging process. When we’re young, discs have a high fluid content, which keeps them supple. But as we get older, discs begin to lose some of that liquid. Of course, years of wear and tear can also take their toll, weakening discs and making them more prone to herniation. And there are other risk factors besides age that can increase your chances of developing a herniated disc:
- Being overweight or obese, which places added pressure on your spine
- Lifting heavy items improperly, placing added strain on your spine
- Having a sedentary lifestyle, which results in your back being less flexible and strong
- Smoking, which impairs healthy circulation to the spine and the rest of the body
- Sitting for prolonged periods of time, over and over again, especially when driving for long distances
- Repetitive motions like bending and lifting that place added stress on your spine
What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?
Some people who have herniated discs have no symptoms at all. But for many people, they can cause a range of symptoms, including:
- Dull achiness or sharp pain in the lower back
- Pain or numbness that radiates through the buttocks and legs, also called sciatica
- A “needles and pins” tingling sensation in the buttock and leg, sometimes extending to the foot
- Weakness or muscle spasms in the legs
- Pain or aching in the front of the thigh
- When a disc in the neck becomes herniated, it can cause similar symptoms to occur in the arms.
How is a herniated disc treated?
Most patients respond well to conservative treatment, which may include:
- Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers
- Muscle relaxants if the disc compression is causing muscle spasms
- Cortisone injections to reduce swelling and inflammation
- Hot or cold therapy to reduce swelling and increase circulation for better healing
- Stretching exercises to improve flexibility and reduce pressure
- Physical therapy for guided exercises and other approaches to minimize pain
A very few people may need surgery to help relieve chronic symptoms like numbness, trouble walking or bladder or bowel incontinence. Surgery usually involves removal of the portion of the disc that’s bulging, but in some cases, the entire disc must be removed. In those cases, the vertebrae on either side of the disc will be fused together using metal rods to prevent the bones from grinding against one another.
If you have low back pain, ignoring it can only make it worse.