People often experience lower back pain and assume it’s just a side effect of their sedentary or heavy-lifting job. Although many things can cause and contribute to lower back pain, it’s possible that a herniated disc may be the culprit.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
Herniated discs are commonly referred to as slipped or ruptured discs. The human spine is made up of small flexible discs located between each vertebra. These discs enable the spine to twist, bend, and move with ease. These discs are often compared to jelly-filled doughnuts, because they are filled with a gel-like substance surrounded by a tougher exterior.
A herniated disc occurs when a disc’s tough exterior ruptures or the gel breaks free.
Don’t confuse this condition with a bulging disc, which is more like a hamburger patty that is too large for its bun. Bulging discs are generally associated with age and rarely produce the same amount of pain as a herniated disc.
The question remains: how does a herniated disc occur?
Herniated discs cannot be attributed to a single cause. Rather, they can occur in several different situations.
A traumatic injury can cause multiple back and neck problems, including herniated discs.
People who work in industries that require constant heavy lifting have an increased chance of slipping a disc. When someone uses improper lifting techniques, pressure is not equally distributed through the spinal column, and a pressurized disc may “give way” or slip out of place.
For those who work in office or sedentary jobs, a lack of proper posture can have drastic consequences. Though slouching may not cause drastic problems immediately, poor posture puts too much pressure on the lumbar or lower back. Prolonged pressure on the lower back often eventually causes a herniated disc.
Age also increases a person’s chances of rupturing a disc. As you age, the water content in your discs decreases. This makes your discs less flexible and more vulnerable to tearing. It’s common for people’s discs to begin bulging between ages 35 and 45. This bulging makes ruptures more likely.
Potential Effects of Herniated Discs
Once your disc has ruptured, you’ll begin to experience some of the following symptoms:
- Tingling or burning sensations near the rupture
- Focused pain and numbness on one side of the body
- Pain upon standing and sitting
- Shooting pain to the extremities
- Abnormal muscle weakness
- Seemingly random numbness throughout the body
The gel-like substance within spinal discs often presses against nerve roots and protrudes out of its capsule. This protrusion irritates nearby nerves and can manifest as numbness, tingling, or sharp pain in the back and extremities.
Long-term effects associated with a slipped or herniated disc often vary based on severity.
Severe herniation may lead to permanent nerve damage. Cauda equina syndrome is one condition linked to severe herniation. Cauda equina syndrome occurs when a slipped disc cuts off nerve impulses to the bladder and bowels. This often causes incontinence, or a loss of bowel and bladder control altogether.
Saddle anesthesia is another complication linked to herniated discs. With saddle anesthesia, a ruptured disc compresses the nerves responsible for sensations in the inner thighs, the backs of legs, and the rectal area. This nerve compression creates unwanted numbness throughout the saddle area.
Herniated discs may also contribute to conditions like sciatica. Sciatica occurs when a ruptured disc compresses part of the sciatic nerve. Pain, inflammation, and numbness travel down the nerve and affect the corresponding leg.
Although these conditions are all linked to herniated discs, not every person with a herniated disc will experience them. In fact, some people recover from a slipped disc within six weeks, with little to no symptoms. Symptoms and long-term effects will all depend on the nature of a rupture, as well as which nerves are affected by the rupture.
Common Treatments for Herniated Discs
Treatments also depend on the severity of the rupture and usually correspond to a person’s pain level.
Be sure you consult with a neurologist, a physical therapist, and/or a physiatrist to ensure you get the best treatment for your specific condition. To determine the appropriate treatment plan, your doctor will order an MRI or CT scan to determine the exact nature and severity of your rupture.
Conservative treatments tend to include some form of physical exercise to promote muscle strengthening in the back and abdomen. The stronger the muscles in your back and abdomen, the less nerve pressure and back pain you will experience.
Prescription medications as strong as narcotics or as gentle as muscle relaxers may also be necessary.
If your pain does not subside after six weeks, your doctor may recommend surgery to correct the problem.
How to Prevent Herniated Discs
When it comes to spinal health, the best policy is prevention. Take steps to ensure your back health by:
- Avoiding a sedentary lifestyle and exercising regularly
- Strengthening your back and abdominal muscles
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Using proper lifting techniques—lift with your knees
If you follow these basic guidelines, you’ll be able to avoid many injury-causing mishaps. In the event an injury does occur, be sure to contact your doctor or specialist as soon as possible.