The spine is a network of vertebrae that protect the spinal cord. To prevent the bones from rubbing against each other, there are small discs in between them. These discs cushion the bones, while also protecting the nerves as they run through the spinal cord.
A disc herniation is a displacement of disc material beyond the normal confines of the disc space. The terms disc protrusion, disc bulge, disc herniation, ruptured disc and slipped disc all mean the same thing and imply that disc material has left the normal disc space.
If disc material herniates, or squeezes out, this can put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves. This can cause severe pain in the path of the nerve being pinched. Pressure against the nerve root from a herniated disc can cause numbness and weakness along the nerve. When the nerve root is inflamed, the added pressure may also cause vague, deep pain and/or cause sharp, shooting pain to radiate along the pathway of the nerve.
The most common location for a disc herniation to develop is in the lower back (lumbar region of the spine) but can happen in the neck (cervical spine) as well.
Similar to other medical conditions, the symptoms of a herniated disc can change depending on the location and severity of the issue. Some of the most common symptoms include:
The symptoms depend entirely on the nerves that are impacted, which is dependent on the exact disc that has herniated. That is why it is important to reach out to a professional who can diagnose the issue as quickly as possible.
There are several possible causes of disc herniation. Some of the most common ones include:
Ultimately it’s hard to say what specific act can cause a disc to herniate in a patient, but we do know that herniation may occur when too much force is exerted on an otherwise healthy intervertebral disc.
There are several risk factors that could make it more likely for you to develop a herniated disc. Some of the most common examples include:
If you believe that you are at an increased risk of suffering a herniated disc, it is important to reach out to a medical professional. You may be able to reduce your risk of developing the condition by remaining active, stopping smoking, and keeping your weight at a healthy level.
A herniated disc may be diagnosed after a complete history and comprehensive physical exam by a spinal specialist.
Imaging studies at the Virginia Spine Institute are usually a first step in understanding spine pathology. These include:
We will work with you to determine whether one or more of these imaging studies is necessary. We want to get a complete picture before we recommend your custom treatment plan.
Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and apparent nerve damage. Most disc herniations improve in six weeks to three months from the initial injury. In many cases, medication management and quality physical therapy may be enough to allow your body to heal.
When properly identified and treated, most patients will improve with non-surgical care. For the few patients where nerve compression remains too much, minimally invasive surgery is usually highly successful in eliminating the symptoms and allowing people to return to a full and active lifestyle.
The goal of surgery is to remove the offending disc material and decompress the irritating pressure. Surgery may be recommended if there is an unbearable pain that cannot be managed with medications, worsening weakness, evidence of spinal cord compression, and/or bowel or bladder concerns.
If you believe that you have a herniated disc, it is important for you to reach out to a doctor as soon as possible. The sooner this condition is diagnosed, the faster it can be treated, and the sooner you can improve your quality of life.
At Virginia Spine Institute, our spine specialists have an unparalleled level of experience working with patients who suffer from disc herniation. Through out patient-centered, all under one roof model, we are able to provide an elevated level of care in a comprehensive environment for healing. As the largest specialized spine center in the DC-metro region, Virginia Spine Institute is able to provide treatments that other physicians haven’t offered to their patients, all while making it a personalized experience. Because no two journeys are the same, each patient receives the individualized time and attention necessary to properly diagnose and create a treatment plan to achieve their goals for recovery. By selecting this team of specialists, patients have access to cutting-edge, modern treatment options that are not offered elsewhere.
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Reviewed by: Dr. Christopher Good, MD, FACS.