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What Is a Herniated Disc and How Can I Know If I Have One?

If so, you’re far from alone; experts estimate that up to 80 percent of the population experiences back pain at some point in life. From aging and trauma to medical conditions, there are many reasons why our backs can bother us. One is a herniated disc, which is a common reason for consistent back pain that might be to blame for your symptoms.

To help you narrow it down, we’ll provide a breakdown of all things herniated discs: what they are, common signs and symptoms, and how a spine specialist can help determine the best treatment option to meet your needs.

What Is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc, sometimes also referred to as a slipped or ruptured disc, is defined by the American Association of Neurological Surgeons as “a fragment of the disc nucleus that is pushed into the spinal canal through a tear or rupture.”

In most cases, discs become herniated when they’re in the early stage of degeneration—which is completely normal. As we age, our discs slowly begin to degenerate, or deteriorate, and lose functional ability. Degeneration is a natural part of the aging process that impacts all areas of the body; however, it is particularly impactful when it comes to the discs and joints of the spine. This can cause discs to develop small tears, allowing the inner substance to herniate. The displacement causes the disc to press down on the spinal nerves, often producing severe pain, discomfort, and loss of flexibility.

What Are the Common Signs of a Herniated Disc?

If you’re wondering whether or not you have a herniated disc, you’re probably hunting for common signs and symptoms. Though symptoms vary greatly, there are certain key indicators to look for.

For instance, damaged discs put pressure on the surrounding nerves (basically pinching them) and cause sciatica, intense, radiating pain down the legs. Some people experience a tingling situation through the legs, as well as weakness and loss of muscle control. In cases in which there is severe compression of the nerve, you may also experience the inability to lift your foot while walking or standing.

With that said, there are also cases of patients being diagnosed with a herniated disc after experiencing little to no pain at all—it all depends on the size and position of the herniation. Each individual is different, which is why it is important to get an expert opinion if you recognize any of these issues.

How Are Herniated Discs Treated?

At DISC Sports & Spine Center, we recommend exploring non-surgical options before moving forward with a more advanced surgical procedure, if it is best for the patient. Luckily, there are several non-surgical options for treating a herniated disc, such as:

  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Pain management
  • Nerve medications
  • Physical therapy
  • Steroid injections
  • Ice and rest

If non-surgical treatment options are unsuccessful or likely to be ineffective, it may be time to talk about surgery. Thanks to advances in technology, minimally invasive surgery can be used to treat herniated discs in many cases. Procedures frequently used to treat herniated discs include:

Microdiscectomy

A microdiscectomy is a minimally invasive surgical procedure during which part of the damaged disc is removed to relieve pressure on the spinal nerves. During the surgery, a small approach is taken with an incision the size of a quarter to remove fragments. Patients are typically up and walking after surgery and home the same day. 

Artificial Disc Replacement

During artificial disc replacement (ADR) surgery, the damaged disc is replaced with a man-made alternative that functions in a similar way. This ultimately allows for improved movement and better support of the vertebrae. At DISC, ADR is performed on an outpatient basis following a minimally invasive technique.

Spinal Fusion

A spinal fusion is often performed if removal of the damaged disc leads to instability in the spine. During a spinal fusion, a bone graft is placed between two vertebrae after the disc is removed, allowing them to “fuse” together into one solid unit. Though it can be performed using minimally invasive techniques, a spinal fusion is the most advanced of these procedures and is usually recommended only if other approaches are unsuccessful.

If you do end up going the surgical route, make it a point to seek out a specialist in minimally invasive spinal surgery. Such a surgeon is uniquely trained to make smaller incisions, thereby promoting less tissue trauma, decreased risk of complications, minimal scarring, and a faster recovery period.

At DISC Sports & Spine Center, our board-certified spinal surgeons are experts in treating a wide range of conditions, including herniated discs. Request a consultation with us to discuss your spine health and wellness.

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About the author

discmdgroup DISC Sports and Spine Center (DISC) is one of America’s foremost providers of minimally invasive spine procedures and advanced arthroscopic techniques. Our individually picked, highly specialized physicians apply both established and innovative solutions to diagnose, treat, and rehabilitate their patients in a one-stop, multi-disciplinary setting. With a wide range of specialists under one roof, the result is an unmatched continuity of care with more efficiency, less stress for the patient, and a zero MRSA infection rate. Read more articles by discmdgroup.