The vertebrae are held together and in place by small discs that act as shock absorbers, controlling the back’s range of movement and flexibility, and keeping the bones and spinal cord safe from damage. However, when a disc is damaged, it can slip out of its place and either bulge or break, leaving the corresponding vertebrae susceptible to damage. When this occurs, the result is called a herniated disc, as well as a slipped or ruptured disc.
A herniated disc can be incredibly painful and can cause a great deal of limitations on the body’s movement, thus hindering a person’s mobility and overall ability to perform day-to-day. Treating a herniated disc can be different for every person. Every possible method – and there are many – depends on the physical well-being of the person, as well as medical history and other various factors.
When it comes time for treatment of a herniated disc, there are options for both surgical and non-surgical procedures. Ultimately, treatment depends on the severity of the injury, how much it is affecting the person’s ability to function normally, the imposition on the person’s lifestyle, and the amount of pain that it is inflicting.
Symptoms of a herniated disc vary greatly depending on the position of the herniated disc and the size of the herniation. Symptoms of a herniated disc include:
- Not pressing on a nerve, you may have an ache in the low back or no symptoms at all.
- Pressing on a nerve, you may have pain, numbness, or weakness in the area of your body to which the nerve travels.
- With herniation in the lower (lumbar) back, sciatica may develop. Sciatica is pain that travels through the buttocks and down a leg to the ankle or foot because of pressure on the sciatic nerve. Low back pain may accompany the leg pain.
- With herniation in the upper part of the lumbar spine, near the ends of the lowest ribs, you may have pain in the front of the thigh.
- With herniation in the neck (cervical spine), you may have pain or numbness in the shoulders, arms, or chest.
Nerve-related symptoms caused by a herniated disc include:
- Tingling ("pins-and-needles" sensation) or numbness in one leg that can begin in the buttock or behind the knee and extend to the thigh, ankle, or foot.
- Weakness in certain muscles in one or both legs.
- Pain in the front of the thigh.
- Weakness in both legs and the loss of bladder and/or bowel control, which are symptoms of a specific and severe type of nerve root compression called cauda equina syndrome. This is a rare but serious problem, and a person with these symptoms should see a doctor immediately.
Other symptoms of a herniated disc include severe deep muscle pain and muscle spasms.
Conventional treatment options for herniated disk range from nonsurgical methods to surgical methods. Nonsurgical options for herniated disk include:
- Pain medications
- Cold therapy, heat therapy or both
- Electrical stimulation
- Dynamic lumbar stabilization exercises
- Aerobic exercise using pain-free activities
Surgical options for herniated disk
- Minimally invasive procedures
- Decompression procedures
The goal of these treatments is to control your pain so that your body is given time to heal itself:
- Decreased activity
- Pain medications including Acetaminophen, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, Neuropathic pain medications, tricyclic antidepressants, Muscle relaxants, Corticosteroids, Narcotics
- Cold or heat therapy
- Electrical stimulation
Measures that may help prevent low back pain or a herniated disc include:
- Maintaining a healthy body weight. This may reduce the load on your lower back. For information on maintaining a healthy weight, see the topic Weight Management.
- Exercising regularly.
- Quitting smoking. Nicotine and other toxins from tobacco smoke can be harmful to your body in many ways. Nicotine can harm the discs in your back because it lowers the ability of the discs to absorb the nutrients they need to stay healthy and it may cause them to become dry and brittle. For information on quitting smoking, see the topic Quitting Smoking.
- Practicing good posture. To reduce the stress that improper posture puts on your back:
- Use good posture while standing or walking, keeping your shoulders back and down, chin back, abdomen in, and your lower back supported.
- Sit in the neutral position, using a small pillow or rolled towel to support your lower back if your chair doesn't give enough support.
- Keep your back in the neutral position while sleeping, with techniques such as using a towel roll to support your lower back or placing a pillow under your knees when sleeping on your back. See pictures of sleeping positions.
- Use proper lifting techniques, such as lifting by squatting and bending your knees, and using your legs to push yourself up.
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