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Disc Herniations

Understanding the Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

What is a Herniated Disc?

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 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 herniated disc to develop is in the lower back (lumbar region of the spine), but can happen in the neck (cervical spine) as well.

Symptoms of Disc Herniations

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 of a herniated disc include:

  • You may notice pain that travels down one or both of your arms and legs.
  • You may develop numbness and tingling in certain parts of your arms and legs.
  • You may feel like you are not able to use your arms or legs as much as before.
  • You may lose your reflexes and certain extremities.
  • The pain could change depending on your position.

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.

Most Common Causes of Disc Herniations

There are several possible causes of a herniated disc. Some of the most common causes of a herniated disc include:

  • Bending can place high forces on the discs between each vertebra. If you bend and try to lift a heavy object, the force and stress on your spine can cause a disc to rupture.
  • Heavy forces on the neck or low back may simply be too much for even a healthy disc to absorb. For example, falling from a significant height causes a large amount of force through the spine and if strong enough, a vertebra can break or disc can rupture.
  • A herniated disc can also be a chronic injury, as repeated annular tears can weaken the disc over time.
  • If you lift something with a jerking or twisting motion, you could cause a vulnerable disc to herniate.
  • The natural process of aging causes discs to become weakened from degeneration.
  • Poor posture can cause a disc herniation. As postural muscles fatigue, excessive tension is placed on the discs, ligaments, and joints.

Ultimately it’s hard to say what the exact act will be that causes a disc herniation in a patient, but we do know that a herniated disc may occur when too much force is exerted on an otherwise healthy intervertebral disc.

Disc Herniation Risk Factors

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:

  • People who are overweight or obese are at a greater risk of herniating a disc in their back than those who are at a healthy weight.
  • People who have physically demanding jobs that involve a lot of heavy lifting are also at a greater risk of suffering a herniated disc.
  • People with a family history of a herniated disc are more likely to suffer a herniated disc than those who do not.
  • Individuals who smoke are at a markedly increased risk of developing a herniated disc.
  • A herniated disc can happen to anyone of any age, but are most common in young to middle-aged adults who overwork their body.  

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 a herniated disc by remaining active, stopping smoking, and keeping your weight at a healthy level.

Diagnosing Disc Herniations

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:

  • Standing and bending X-rays to evaluate spinal alignment, stability and disc space height.
  • An MRI is the standard imaging to assess disc and nerve pathology.
  • An EMG may be used to determine which specific nerves are involved and the extent of possible nerve damage.

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 Options for a Herniated Disc

The treatment of a herniated disc 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.

  • Medications are commonly used to control pain, inflammation, muscle spasm, and sleep disturbance. These may involve steroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), pain medications, and muscle relaxers to help control symptoms and reduce inflammation.
  • Spine-specialized physical therapy is often prescribed with the goal of assisting in calming pain and inflammation, improving mobility and strength, and helping achieve daily activities with greater ease and ability. Exercises focus on improving core strength, spinal strength, coordination and mobility of the spine.
  • Epidural Steroid Injections are usually reserved when other conservative measures do not work, or in an effort to postpone surgery. These injections place a small amount of ‘cortisone’ into the spinal canal. Cortisone is a strong anti-inflammatory medicine that may decrease nerve inflammation and ease pain caused by irritated nerve roots. This treatment is not always successful but may provide short-term help.

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 unbearable pain that cannot be managed with medications, worsening weakness, evidence of spinal cord compression, and/or bowel or bladder concerns.

Contact Virginia Spine Institute for Your Herniated Disc

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 herniated discs. 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.

Featured Video About Disc Herniations

What is a Disc Herniation?

Our Doctors That Treat Disc Herniations

Dr. Christopher Good

Spine Surgeon
President of Virginia Spine Institute

Dr. Colin Haines

Spine Surgeon
Director of Research

Dr. Thomas Schuler

Spine Surgeon
Founder
Chief Executive Officer

Dr. Ehsan Jazini

Spine Surgeon

Dr. Thomas Nguyen

Interventional Pain Management Specialist

Dr. Niteesh Bharara

Orthopedic Specialist - Non-Surgical Sports Medicine
Director of Regenerative Medicine

See What Our Patients Are Saying

Nine weeks after surgery, I have hiked over 100 miles, and all of it over 8000 ft!

— Marc W.

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