A Visual Guide to Herniated Disks

February 20, 2018

What is a herniated disc?
The bones of the spine, called vertebrae, are separated by rubber discs. If one of these discs tears, your disc will “rupture”. When the jelly-like substance inside leaks and presses against a nearby nerve, it is called a “herniated disc.”

What caused it?
It is often difficult to know exactly what caused the disc to rupture. It could be that you lifted something heavy and strained your back. A simple clumsy turn or twist can do that, or even a fall or sudden bump to the body. Sometimes, it’s just aging. As you get older, your discs start to lose water, which means they don’t flex as much and may tear more easily.

What are the symptoms?
You may notice a sharp pain that goes from your hip to the back of your leg. Your leg or foot may feel weak, numb or tingling. In the neck, a herniated disc can cause pain, tingling and numbness to spread from your arm to the muscles between your neck and shoulder.

Who gets sick?
If you lift, push, bend, or do the same motion over and over again, you’re more likely to tear a disc. Think of a warehouse or delivery worker. Sitting in the same position all day, as many office workers do, can cause this. After middle age, this can happen even more if you are overweight or smoke. Some people inherit genes from their parents that cause disc problems.

How is it diagnosed?
Your doctor will ask you more about your symptoms and test your reflexes and muscle strength. She may rub, touch or prick your skin to see how much you can feel. You may also need some imaging tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs.

Which medications help?
You can start with over-the-counter medications that reduce swelling and pain, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. If your pain is unbearable, your doctor may prescribe stronger medications, such as anesthetics, anticonvulsants, and muscle relaxants. To suppress the inflammation around a herniated disc, you may need to take oral steroids. Your doctor may also inject steroids into your back to relieve the swelling around the disc.

Cold treatment and heat treatment
Try using ice packs to relieve pain and swelling at first, but don’t use them for more than 20 minutes at a time. After a few days, after the muscle spasms have settled down, you can also switch to some gentle heat packs to relieve the pain.

If your back still hurts after a few weeks, your doctor may send you to a therapist who can show you a set of exercises that can reduce nerve stress. These usually help strengthen your back and abdominal muscles. It’s best to ask an expert to show you the right way to do these exercises so you don’t reinjure yourself or make your symptoms worse.

surgery (branch of medicine)
Most people do not need surgery, but if you continue to have severe pain, numbness, difficulty walking, or bladder problems after 6 weeks of other treatments, you may need to consider surgery. Surgeons may remove a portion of the disc where it is pressing on a nerve. In the neck, the surgeon may remove the entire disc and replace it with bone, or sometimes a metal plate for support.

complications (medicine)
Just past the waistline, your spine divides into a group of nerve roots called the cauda equina. In rare cases, a herniated disc can compress this group of nerve roots. You may lose control of your bladder and bowel movements, and you may need immediate surgery to prevent permanent damage, such as weakness or paralysis. If you notice any of these symptoms, or if you lose feeling in your feet, legs, or genital area, go to the emergency room immediately.

How to Prevent Trouble
While there are no guarantees, there are things you can do to keep your discs in good shape. Maintaining a healthy weight helps keep the extra pressure on your spine. Try to avoid doing the exact same movements over and over again. If you sit all day, try to stand up and move around at least every hour or so to take the pressure off your back.

good posture
If you keep your back straight, especially if you sit for long periods of time, you will put less pressure on your spine and discs. When you lift heavy objects, you should primarily use the muscles in your legs, not your back. If you’re not sure exactly how to do this, a doctor or physical therapist can help you.