Herniated Disc Injuries: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Herniated discs are very common, but they’re not always the true cause of back pain. Join Jesse Wallace, DC as he defines what a disc herniation is and why it’s misunderstood. He also explores the various treatment options available for resolving this condition.

WHAT IS A HERNIATED DISC INJURY?

The spine is made up of a series of connected bones called “vertebrae.” The vertebral disc is a combination of strong connective tissues which hold one vertebra to the next and acts as a cushion between the vertebrae. These discs are made of a tough outer layer called the “annulus fibrosus” and a gel-like center called the “nucleus pulposus.” When the nucleus pulposus bulges or ruptures, it can press on the various nerve roots in your spine and can cause pain, numbness, or muscle weakness in the arms or legs.

A herniated disc may also cause back pain, but back pain alone (without leg pain) can have many causes other than a herniated disc. This condition is often known as a bulging disc or slipped disc, but its medical term is “herniated nucleus pulposus,” or more commonly, a “herniated disc.”

Disc injuries can be separated into three categories:

  1. Disc Bulge/Protrusion– The disc begins to bulge from between the vertebrae. Although the disc remains attached, the bulging tissue can press on the spinal nerves.
  2. Disc Extrusion– The outer layer of the disc begins to tear, allowing the nucleus pulposus to leak outside the disc. With this type of herniation, the extruded tissue is still attached to the disc.
  3. Disc Sequestration– The nucleus pulposus bursts, completely separating from the disc. This is a rare type of disc injury, but it’s also the most severe.
Man Holding His Back in Pain

WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS?

The most common herniated disc cause is often natural disc degeneration over time. However, sometimes a traumatic or sudden movement, such as a fall or accident, can lead to a herniated disc. In addition, several lifestyle factors can increase your odds of suffering from a disc herniation, such as:

  • Age – As you age, the disc may start to lose water content, making it less effective as a cushion for your vertebrae. Disc herniations are more commonly found in people over 40 years old.
  • Improper Posture & Form – Poor posture when sitting or standing can play a part in disc herniation, as it increases the pressure on your spinal column and discs. When being physically active, poor form while exercising, such as lifting, can cause a disc injury from using your back rather than your legs.
  • Sedentary Activities – Partaking in activities that include sitting for long periods of time, such as gaming or watching TV, can increase your risk of a disc injury.
  • Weight– Those who are overweight or obese have a higher risk of suffering from disc injuries due to the increased pressure placed on bones and joints.
  • Occupation– Wear and tear from physically demanding jobs can put excessive stress on the spine, especially if you’re repetitively lifting, pushing, or pulling.

SIGNS & SYMPTOMS OF A HERNIATED DISC

Due to the complex nature and anatomy of the spine, you might have a herniated disc without even knowing. Herniated disc symptoms can vary dramatically based on the severity of injury, as well as location within the spine. In addition, you may feel pain moderately or intensely and experience multiple symptoms at once, or little to none.

CERVICAL DISC HERNIATION

The cervical spine is made up of seven vertebrae in the neck. The cervical vertebrae give the neck its mobility. If you’re suffering from a cervical disc herniation, you’ll likely experience a few of these symptoms:

  • Upper back or neck pain that may feel dull or sharp
  • Pain, numbness, or tingling in the shoulder and upper arm
  • Arm and hand weakness
  • Pain may increase with certain neck positions and movements

THORACIC DISC HERNIATION

The thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae of the mid back, below the cervical spine. It’s considered the most complex region of the spine since it is the only region where the vertebrae are also attached to the rib cage. Due to this specific location and structure, a thoracic disc herniation is likely to cause symptoms in the chest, abdomen, and mid back.

  • Pain in the mid back, especially if the herniation is compressing a spinal nerve
  • Chest pain
  • Numbness or tingling that travels from the mid back to the chest or upper abdomen
  • Weakness or numbness in the legs

LUMBAR DISC HERNIATION

The lumbar spine is made up of five large vertebrae in the lower back. Because these vertebrae are more mobile than the others and will endure the most force from activities like lifting and jumping, they are also the most vulnerable to spinal and disc injuries.

  • Burning, tingling, or pain in the buttocks, legs, and feet
  • Lower back pain that worsens when standing, sitting, or walking
  • Pain, numbness, or tingling in the legs
  • Possible incontinence
Man in Clinic at Physical Therapy

TRADITIONAL herniated disc treatment

If you’re experiencing back pain, or any of the symptoms describing a herniated disc, your doctor may perform a physical and neurological exam to check your reflexes, muscle strength, range of motion, and pain levels. If you’ve suffered from a back injury or have been experiencing chronic lower back pain, imaging tests may be used to find and diagnose the possible causes.

Conservative treatment is usually the first and best option for a bulging disc. Your doctor will likely suggest rest from physical activity, physical therapy, massage, and medications, such as NSAIDS or muscle relaxers, to treat your symptoms. For more severe and painful disc injuries, you may need steroid injections, ultrasound therapy, and surgery to help alleviate symptoms.

Woman Exercising and Smiling

HOW AIRROSTI CAN HELP

If left untreated, a herniated disc can worsen over time, leading to possible nerve damage or chronic back pain that may require more serious intervention. If you are suffering from a herniated disc, or experiencing any of the symptoms, consider Airrosti. At Airrosti, our Providers can help treat your pain, without the need of surgery or injections, in as little as 3 to 4 visits, based on patient-reported outcomes.

To learn more about Airrosti and what to expect on your first visit, click here. If you’re ready to begin your recovery and get back to living your life to the fullest, call (800) 404-6050 or schedule an appointment online today!

Reviewed by Casey Crisp, Doctor of Chiropractic

Disclaimer: Always consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program. If you experience any numbness, tingling or reproduction of your symptoms, please contact your doctor.

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