Herniated Disc

What is a Herniated Disc?

January 16, 2019

The cushion-like pads between the human vertebrae are called the spinal disc. It is referred to as the “shock absorber” of the spinal bones because of its ability to absorb body weight and trauma impact. Without the discs, the bones in the spine would grind against one to another. In addition to that, the spinal disc is the one responsible for our body movement and flexibility such as twisting and bending.

Each of the discs has this parts: annulus fibrosus and nucleus pulposus. The former is the outer layer while the latter is the soft, gel-like center. Fibers are what attach to adjacent vertebrae and hold the disc in place. When our spinal discs move out of position and presses on adjacent nerves, it develops a herniated disc. This condition can be felt along the spine, but it is most often affect the lower back (lumbar spine) or neck region (cervical spine). In other words, when the annulus fibrosus ruptures or tear and the nucleus pulposus leaks into the spinal canal, a herniated disc will occur. Discs that become herniated are usually in an early stage of degeneration.

The spinal canal has limited space. Just enough to house the spinal fluid and cord. So once a disc is herniated and falls into the spinal canal, the spinal cord or nerves can compress and cause a sudden, weakening pain and alterations in sensation. Moreover, the chemical irritants produce by the gel-like chemical inside the disc can contribute to the pain and inflammation of the nerve.

What causes a Herniated Disc?

Genetic factor and the normal aging process are primary contributors to the development of disc degenerative conditions. Nevertheless, overuse injuries or trauma to the spine typically caused it.

The spinal disc gradually dries out as we age. The loss of the fluid volume causes tiny cracks or tears to form in the disc, making it brittle, weak, and more vulnerable to injury. As the degeneration progresses, a relatively minor strain or twisting movement can cause a disc to rupture. This process usually starts at about age 30 and progresses slowly over time.

Listed below are the most common causes of a herniated disc.

  1. Wear and Tear

    As we’ve mentioned that disc conditions are affected by age, spinal discs are not as flexible as they once were when it dries out.

  2. Traumatic Injury

    Accidents can cause high-impact traumas which can result in bulging, tearing, or rupturing disc.

  3. Genetics

    Disc generation is sometimes present in the genes. If Herniated discs existed in the family bloodline, members may be more vulnerable to disc problems and, as a result, may suffer herniated discs in several places along the spine. The role of these genes still needs more research to investigate. Results in research can be useful in the future biological treatments

  4. Repetitive Movements

    Anything that puts stress on the spine (especially the lower back), may it be work, sports, and lifestyle, may further deteriorate an already weak area.

  5. Overweight or obesity

    Excess weight can add an undue amount of strain on the spine.

  6. Lifting the Wrong Way

    Poor lifting can also cause a herniated disc. So never lift with your waist bent. Practice proper lifting, which is lifting with the legs and a straight back.

How to diagnose if a person has a Herniated Disc?

Depending where and how severe the injury is, the patient may experience various pain. But typically, it is felt on just one side. Usually, little or no pain can be felt if the injury is minor. For example, the patient may experience a low backache (or no pain at all) if the herniated disc is not pressing on a nerve.

Meanwhile, if the disc ruptures, pain can be severe and unrelenting. The patient may also feel numbness or weakness in the area of the body to which the nerve travels if it is pressing on a nerve.

If there is a significant nerve impingement in a specific nerve root, pain may also radiate to an extremity. Sciatica, for instance, is caused by a disc herniated in the lower back. It can cause pain, burning, tingling, and numbness that radiates from the buttock into the leg and sometimes into the foot–usually one side (left or right) is affected. The pain in sciatica is often described as sharp and electric shock-like that can be more severe with standing, sitting, or walking.

These range of symptoms can manifest itself once a disc is herniated:

  1. A tingling, numbness, and burning
  2. Debilitation or muscle weakness; spasm; and altered reflexes
  3. A dull ache to severe pain
  4. Loss of bladder or bowel control

Note that the last symptoms signify a medical emergency. If losing the bowel and bladder control occur, immediately seek for a medical attention.

Now, to the diagnose a herniated discs, history and physical examination may be necessary. However, imaging studies such as MRI, NCS, and EMG are the best tools to confirm a diagnosis. X-rays are excluded as an imaging medium because soft tissues like discs and nerves are hard to capture with this technology. But x-ray can still be useful in identifying other conditions such as a fracture or growth. Still, the confirmation of the suspected herniated disc is generally accomplished with:

  • Nerve Conduction Studies (NCS) and Electromyogram (EMG)

    NCS and EMG are not routine tests to diagnose a herniated disc. However, these studies measure the degree of damage to the nerve or nerves caused by herniated disc compression and other disorder that causes nerves impingement through the use of electrical impulses.

  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

     This tool is one of the best imaging studies to support the diagnosis of a herniated disc as it reveals the spinal cords as well as the surrounding soft tissues and nerves.

Herniated Discs Treatment

A herniated disc in the lower back will heal within six months as the size of the herniation shrinks with time via resorption–a process where the body absorb the disc fragments.

A surgery may also be needed if medication, physical therapy, and other treatments fail. However, most patients with herniated discs respond well to conservative treatment and a surgery do not usually need.

Causes of a Herniated Disc