What is a Herniated Disc?
A spinal disc has a soft interior that’s surrounded by a thicker, tougher exterior. Also called a slipped disc or a ruptured disc, a herniated disc occurs when a tear develops in the tough outer layer allowing the inner layer to seep out. 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. While your level of pain will depend on how much the disc is pressing on a nerve, most people with herniated discs experience pain from the back over the left or right buttock, 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. In rarer cases, a traumatic event, for instance a fall or a car accident, can lead to disc herniation.
How They’re Diagnosed
If your doctor suspects you have a herniated disc, he or she will perform a physical exam and likely order an MRI or other imaging tests. These will reveal if you do, in fact, have 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 require surgery.