What You Need to Know about Disc Herniation
An aching back can be more than just a minor annoyance or temporary inconvenience. Before any type of treatment can begin, you’ll likely go through a “process of elimination” phase where possible causes are ruled out as part of the quest to find the source of your discomfort. If it turns to be a herniated disc, you’re not alone since this is one of the most common sources of back pain.
What is a Herniated Disc?
In a nutshell, a herniated disc is a problem with one of the spongy discs that cushion your spine as you move throughout your day. These discs have a harder outer shell and softer “gel” inside. When the inner disc material presses outward, a disc herniation occurs. It can be caused by normal wear and tear of spinal discs, excessive weight, or some type of injury.
Signs You May Have a Herniated Disc
Disc herniation can happen anywhere along the spine, although the lower back and neck are the most common locations. Some people have a herniated disc that has no noticeable symptoms or associated pain. If pain is felt, it’s caused when the inner disc material presses against a nerve root. Symptoms related to disc herniation can include:
- Numbness or tingling in the affected part of the spine
- General muscle weakness
- Back of neck spasms
- Pain radiating to arms, legs, or shoulders via the compressed nerve
Making an Accurate Diagnosis
It’s important to rule out other potential causes of back pain before proceeding with any type of treatment. Diagnosis of suspected disc herniation will start with a thorough medical exam. Image tests, such as X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs, are often performed to determine where the herniation is located. In some cases, disc herniation may be affected by preexisting medical issues.
Treating Disc Herniation
The goal with treatment for a herniated disc is to relieve symptoms. Treatments are often conservative in nature when pain is first reported with most patients typically responding better to a combination of treatments. As with diagnosis, finding the right mix of treatments can be a trial and error process.
Initial treatments may include:
- Over-the-counter or prescription pain medications*
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Spinal injections
- Exercise with doctor approval
*Prescription painkillers are only meant for short-term use due to the risk of dependency.
Reducing Disc Herniation Risk
Disc herniation isn’t always preventable. Although making positive lifestyle changes that include strengthening core muscles and avoiding fried foods, sugar snacks and other foods that tend to increase inflammation can sometimes help minimize the risk of experiencing a herniated disc. Preventative measures can also include:
- Proper lifting techniques
- Drinking plenty of water
- Being mindful of posture
Surgery is rarely necessary for a herniated disc unless there is significant nerve compression or a medical emergency such as loss of bladder functions. For most patients with the condition, avoiding certain movements and modifying activities can provide meaningful relief. Some patients also respond well to physical therapy, a regular exercise routine, and chiropractic manipulation.