Have you heard of the term “herniated disc” but never really understood what that means? Or do you suspect you may have a herniated disc but are putting off seeing a doctor because you don’t want to have surgery? Or have you been diagnosed with a herniated disc but are still confused about why these structures in your neck and back are affecting other parts of your body?
We’re here to answer these questions for you. From the basics of disc herniation to how a spine specialist can help guide your treatment (often without the need for surgery), here’s what you need to know.
What exactly is a herniated disc?
When we talk about discs, we are referring to the small “cushions” in between each vertebra, or bone, of your spinal column. Normally, these discs help separate your vertebrae and act as shock absorbers for your spine. Each disc is made up of a tougher outer layer that houses a gel-like substance inside.
As you age, your discs can start to degenerate and become less flexible. This can cause your discs to rupture or develop small tears in the outer layer, allowing the inner substance to herniate, or push out. Sometimes this occurs as a result of trauma, but often it’s simply caused by your disc wearing down. In many cases, you may not be able to specifically pinpoint what caused your disc to herniate.
Your spinal cord is a bundle of nerves that run through your vertebrae. Nerve roots branch off from the spinal cord and carry nerves throughout your body, providing signals for movement and sensation. When a disc herniates out of place, it can put pressure on your spinal cord or nerves. This is why you may not only feel pain in the area of the disc herniation, but may also experience pain, weakness, or numbness radiating down your leg or into your shoulder and arm. In severe cases, you may have difficulty walking or develop a loss of bladder or bowel control.
Why should I see a doctor if I think I have a herniated disc?
Surprisingly, some people can have a herniated disc that’s discovered on an imaging scan such as an MRI, but not have any symptoms. However, if you are experiencing ongoing pain or pain that’s affecting your ability to function normally, a visit to a spine specialist is certainly warranted. Only a doctor can properly make a diagnosis.
If have symptoms related to spinal cord or nerve compression, it’s even more important to seek out medical care. The longer the condition goes untreated, the greater your chance of developing permanent nerve damage.
What treatments are available for herniated discs?
Quite often, the symptoms of a herniated disc can be managed without surgery. There’s an array of non-operative treatments to help relieve your pain and restore your normal activity level. These include:
- Over-the-counter pain medicine and anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen
- Steroid injections into the area around the spinal nerves to improve pain and inflammation
- Nerve pain medications, such as gabapentin, for damaged nerves
- Short courses of stronger prescription pain medications
- Physical therapy to build your strength and mobility
If these treatments are unsuccessful or if you develop worsening or severe signs of spinal cord or nerve compression, surgery may be recommended. These procedures can often be performed as minimally invasive spine surgery, so be sure to find a specialist who’s proficient in this area. Surgery for a herniated disc may involve:
- Microdiscectomy. This type of surgery removes the part of the disc that’s putting pressure on your spinal nerves. Part of the lamina, the bone at the back of the vertebra, will need to be removed to access the disc.
- Spinal fusion. If the removal of the damaged disc leads to instability in the spine, a spinal fusion may be performed. This procedure places a bone graft in between the two adjacent vertebrae after the disc is removed, allowing the two vertebrae to join together into one solid unit.
- Artificial disc replacement. As an alternative, an artificial disc takes the place of the damaged disc. It functions similarly to your natural disc, allowing for movement and supporting the vertebrae.
At DISC Sports and Spine Center, our board-certified physicians are experts in treating a wide array of spine conditions, including herniated discs. Whether you are searching for a diagnosis or wanting to explore your treatment options, schedule a consultation to learn how we can provide the best solution for you.
About the author
Grant D. Shifflett, MD Dr. Grant D. Shifflett is a fellowship-trained orthopedic spine surgeon. Handpicked by Dr. Robert S. Bray Jr. to join DISC Sports & Spine Center, Dr. Shifflett specializes in the application of minimally invasive and microsurgical techniques to the entire spectrum of cervical, thoracic and lumbar spinal conditions, from the simple to the most complex. Whether treating a patient with chronic pain or an acute injury, his ultimate goal is to restore function and quality of life with minimal tissue disruption. Read more articles by Grant D. Shifflett, MD.