Herniated Discs

What You Need to Know About Herniated Discs

Closeup side view of an early 60's senior gentleman having some lower back pain. He's at doctor's office having medical examination by a male doctor. The doctor is touching the sensitive area and trying to determine the cause of pain.

What is a Herniated Disc?

If the soft gel-like center of a spinal disc pushes out through the tougher outer ring of the disc, this is called a herniated disc. You can imagine a herniated disc almost like the filling being squeezed out of a jelly donut.

Is it Painful?

Sometimes herniated discs don’t cause any pain at all, but if part of the disc begins to press on nerves in the spine, you may feel a tingling, radiating type of pain. Your level of pain and where it’s located will depend how much of the disc is pressing on a nerve. However, in most people with herniated discs, the pain spreads from the back over the buttock and goes down the back of one thigh and into the calf. This pain may get worse when you sit, drive, cough, sneeze, or bend forward, as this increases the pressure on the nerve.

Who Gets a Herniated Disc?

The majority of herniated discs are in the lower back and are caused by disc degeneration. Our spinal discs are soft and elastic when we’re young, but as we age they lose water content and become more rigid. This weakens them and makes them more vulnerable to injury. In other cases, a herniated disc is the result of repeated stress placed on the disc, such as using your back muscles instead of your leg muscles to lift heavy objects, or twisting and turning while lifting.

How They’re Diagnosed

If your doctor suspects you have a herniated disc, he or she will order an MRI or other imaging tests. These will reveal whether or not you do in fact suffer from a herniated disc, and the severity of your condition if you do.

How They’re Treated

Most people who have a herniated disc are better within four weeks. Treatments range from conservative options like rest, lifestyle modifications, physical therapy, and pain medications to more aggressive options like steroid injections, epidurals, and in the most severe cases, even surgery. However, the vast majority of people with a herniated disc will not need to go under the knife.

Expert Advice: Surgery

“Most herniated discs improve with time, but if pain interferes with your ability to participate in daily activities, or if weakness is progressing instead of improving, surgery may be considered. Surgery may also be appropriate if your herniated disc causes difficulty with balance and manual dexterity, and emergency surgery is required for any disc herniation causing bladder incontinence. Surgery for disc herniation is performed on an outpatient basis and has a good safety and return to work/play profile. It is performed using minimally invasive techniques and postoperative pain is typically mild.”

Jay Jolley, MD, Spine Specialist & Surgeon, Southeastern Spine

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