The spinal discs are located in between the vertebrae (intervertebral) and act as shock absorbers for the spinal bones. The discs are round and flat, and made of two layers. The tough outer layer surrounds and contains the contents of an inner core, a soft jelly-like material which is 80% water. Everyday activities and minor injuries cause tears in the outer layer. The most common areas for herniated discs are the lower back and the neck.
What is a herniated disc?
When the outer layer of the disc breaks down, a part of the inner core bulge out into the spinal canal, causing inflammation and pain, and can compress nearby spinal nerves. This is called a slipped or herniated disc. Discs that herniate are often beginning to degenerate as in degenerative disc disease.
What causes a herniated disc?
Discs degenerate progressively with normal wear and tear, as we age. Additionally, the ligaments that hold discs in place weaken with age, so that a minor sprain, a twisting movement or an injury can cause the disc to rupture spilling part of its contents into the spinal canal. Some people have a hereditary predisposition to herniated discs. In these individuals they may suffer herniation in several areas of the spine.
What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?
Lumbar spine disc herniation:
An episode of low back pain or a long history of episodes of low back pain may precede a herniated disc. Symptoms of a herniated disc vary depending on the location of the affected disc, and the size of the herniation.
When the herniated disc contents press against a nerve, the pain is often severe. When the disc material doesn’t press against a nerve, there may be no pain or only low backache. People with degenerative disc disease are at risk for a herniated disc.
Sciatica is a symptom of a herniated disc. Compression of the sciatic nerve causes radiating pain, burning, numbness and tingling from the buttocks down the leg and sometimes even into the foot. This pain is sharp and feels like an electric shock. It may accompany low back pain, and may become severe when standing, walking or sitting. Usually only one side is affected.
Cervical spine disc herniation:
Symptoms are a dull or sharp pain in the neck and between the shoulder blades, that radiates down the arm to the hand and fingers. There may also be numbness and tingling in the shoulder or arm. The pain may become more severe with movement and when certain positions are attempted.
Your Ortho Illinois surgeon will review your medical history including a discussion of when the pain began, where it hurts, whether there is a family history of disc disease, any injuries, your occupation, lifestyle, posture and sleep habits. They will listen carefully while you describe your symptoms. They will conduct a physical exam and order an X-rays, an MRI which will show damaged discs and other studies to determine the state of the affected nerve, to identify healed nerve damage, ongoing nerve damage and which nerves are compressed.
Initial treatment is designed to manage pain and decrease inflammation. Conservative management with over the counter pain medications, and physical therapy with the use of traction, massage, heat and ice therapy, ultrasound and stretching often provide relief. Epidural steroid injections and muscle relaxants may be offered.
Luckily the majority of herniated discs do not require surgery. But when the patient experiences severe sciatica and low back pain that significantly impairs quality of life surgery maybe recommended.
However, surgery is not a guarantee that a patient will be pain free. At Ortho Illinois we offer science-based protocols that emphasize the best non-surgical treatment options to restore function and avoid surgery. When surgery is unavoidable our fellowship trained spine specialists Drs. Braaksma, Stanley, Broderick and Alexander have the skills, training and experience to address herniated discs.
Ortho Illinois is a Regional Spine Care Center with offices in Rockford, Algonquin, Elgin, Illinois. Call us and schedule consultation to get an accurate diagnosis and the least invasive, least aggressive options to relieve your pain.