If you’re experiencing pain, numbness, or weakness in a limb, you may have a herniated disc. Also known as a slipped, or ruptured disc. A herniated disc occurs when the soft center of a spinal disc, known as the nucleus pulposus, pushes through its tough exterior. This can irritate nerves and cause these symptoms.
It’s important to seek medical attention if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above. It’s also important to note that some people with herniated discs experience no symptoms at all. In most cases, a herniated disc does not require surgery and can be treated with exercises alone or with conservative therapy.
Keep in mind, when searching for information about herniated discs, you will likely come across various terms and spellings. Herniated discs are also known as “slipped discs” or “ruptured discs.” More severe forms of herniated discs are called disc extrusions (AKA extruded disc) and disc sequestration (AKA sequestered disc). Additionally, herniated discs can occur in the cervical (neck), thoracic (mid-back), or lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine.
Lastly, the spelling “disk” is correct, but “disc” is more commonly used.
Symptoms of Disc Herniation
Again, a herniated disc can be present without any symptoms. If symptoms do occur, they can include pain, numbness, or weakness in the affected area. The location of the pain, numbness, or weakness can vary depending on the location of the herniated disc on the spine. For example, a herniated disc in the lower back or lumbar region can cause pain in the buttocks, legs, and feet, while a herniated disc in the cervical or neck region can cause pain in the shoulders and/or arms. A low back-related weakness might cause you to stumble or have a foot drop whereas a neck herniation may make it difficult to hold or lift items as they normally would.
How is a Herniated Disc Diagnosed
Lumbar or cervical disc herniation is not always caused by a single event or injury. Rather, it can result from gradual degeneration. Part of this degeneration can be expected with aging; spinal discs naturally lose some of their moisture content and flexibility as a person becomes older. People sometimes exacerbate natural wear and tear by using their back muscles instead of their leg muscles to lift heavy objects ultimately putting the discs at risk for injury.
People who sense back pain with sharp pain up and down the back of their legs are commonly diagnosed with a herniated disc or sciatica.
In the history of the symptoms and examination, herniated disc symptoms may intensify when a person coughs, sneezes, or moves their spine in certain ways. To confirm a diagnosis of a herniated disc after an examination, a doctor will also likely order advanced imaging like an MRI or CT scan.
Herniated Disc Treatment
If you’re dealing with a herniated disc, it’s important to know that treatment options are available to help alleviate your pain and discomfort. One of the most effective and cost-efficient ways to treat a herniated disc is through conservative measures such as exercises, ice or heat therapy, and avoiding certain movements that can exacerbate your symptoms. In many cases, these simple steps can help to reduce disc-related symptoms and improve your overall quality of life.
However, if your symptoms persist or become more severe, your doctor may recommend taking over-the-counter pain medications that contain acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. These medications can help to reduce pain and inflammation, but they can also have potential long-term side effects, such as kidney, liver, and gastrointestinal damage. In more severe cases, your doctor may also prescribe stronger medications such as opioid painkillers and muscle relaxants. These can be effective but also may cause side effects that include confusion, sedation, nausea, constipation, dry mouth, and more. In higher doses, these medications have been linked to more serious problems related to tolerance, addiction, and even death.
If your symptoms don’t improve within six weeks of starting conservative treatment, your doctor may also recommend cortisone injections to suppress inflammation in the area surrounding the spinal nerves. This can be a highly effective way to reduce pain and improve mobility.
Finally, in rare cases, surgery may be required for herniated disc treatment. Surgery is typically recommended when symptoms last for more than six weeks, when a person has intense pain that cannot be controlled, or when a person is unable to walk (or has arm or hand weakness in the case of neck disc herniations). Surgery may also be necessary when a vertebra is fractured along with the herniation.
Surgical options for herniated discs often require removing only the protruding section of the disc, but in some cases, the entire disc will need to be removed. The space left behind can be replaced by an artificial disc, or the adjacent vertebrae may be fused with other materials to keep the spine stable. When treated early enough, many with more severe conditions have reported that the symptoms of weakness and numbness have also resolved.
It is recommended to have a conversation with your doctor before embarking on any treatment methods independently and make sure the condition you are experiencing is indeed due to a herniated disc in the spine. With the right treatment, you can get back to enjoying your life without the intense pain and discomfort of a herniated disc.