The spine is made up of bones called vertebrae. Flexible discs connect the vertebrae and act as a cushion. When the discs are healthy, they act like shock absorbers to help the spine naturally bend and move.
If one or more of these discs is suddenly damaged, it may tear. A herniated disc, also referred to as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs if some of the nucleus of the disc ruptures. This causes the disc to become smaller and provide less cushioning. As a result, vertebrae may grind together, which can lead to increased pressure on nerve roots. Depending on each unique situation, a herniated disc can result in mild to severe pain, including possible nerve damage.
Herniated discs can be found in many locations in the spine, but most cases occur in the lower back, known as the lumbar spine. There are several common causes for herniated discs: lifting, straining, natural wear and tear from the aging process, trauma and previous spine injuries.
Wellness & Prevention
There are steps people can take to reduce their chances of experiencing a herniated disc complication. Several simple actions that help prevent herniated discs include:
- Maintaining good posture
- Lifting with the legs instead of the back
- Participating in regular exercise with proper form
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Not smoking
Spinal disc herniation can happen suddenly and unexpectedly, or it can begin slowly and escalate over a period of time.
Herniated disc diagnosis is a relatively straightforward process. The herniated disc can be detected and confirmed with imaging tools, such as MRI or CT scans.
- Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): MRI scans use magnetic fields, radio waves and a computer in order to take photos of the spine.
- Computed Tomography (CT): CT scans use multiple X-rays to make detailed pictures of the inside of the body.
Although a person may display symptoms that indicate a herniated disc, diagnostic tests are necessary to rule out the possibility it could be another condition.
Depending on the individual, a herniated disc can take weeks or months to heal. During this time, if not properly treated, a herniated disc can worsen and cause nerve damage. Most people begin with nonsurgical treatments, as surgery is often unnecessary to heal a herniated disc.
Nonsurgical treatments include medication and physical therapy. Medication can reduce swelling and pain, as well as alleviate pressure. Physical therapy can strengthen muscles to further protect the spine.
In emergency situations, people may need to undergo surgery immediately. Those whose condition does not improve with nonsurgical treatments may also be candidates for surgical correction. The surgical procedure for herniated discs is called microdiscectomy. This is a one-day, minimally invasive procedure that removes the part of the disc that is pressing on the nerve or spinal cord. The procedure is done using a special microscope to view the disc and nerves.
For most people, a herniated disc heals on its own with time and proper care. If the person cannot participate in a normal level of physical activity, physical therapy or chiropractic work may be advisable. Anti-inflammatory medications can also help manage discomfort during the healing process.
People who have had surgery to treat a herniated disc are usually recommended to limit activities such as bending, twisting or lifting for six weeks. It can take three to four months for the hole in the disc created by the surgery to scar over. For this reason, people must be extra careful not to aggravate the spine for several months after surgery. This helps prevent a recurrence. Gentle stretching exercises can help minimize scarring of the nerve root in the initial weeks following surgery. In the next months, back strengthening exercises can help the back muscles develop. Healthy stabilization minimizes the chances of developing another herniated disc.