What Is a Herniated Disc?
Spinal discs, which act as shock absorbers in between the vertebrae, are composed of two layers – a tough exterior and a soft interior. A herniated disc occurs when a tear develops in the exterior layer, and the inner layer begins to seep out. Also called a slipped disc or ruptured disc, you can imagine a herniated disc almost like the filling being squeezed out of a jelly donut.
Herniated discs don’t always cause pain, 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 the 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.
How Are They 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 Are They Treated?
Most people who have a herniated disc treated 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 surgery.