What is a herniated disc?
Chances are you’ve heard of a herniated disc. If you have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, you are likely also familiar with the pain and symptoms often caused by this condition. As you begin to research the treatment options available to help you find pain relief, it’s important to understand what causes a herniated disc to develop in the first place.
Understanding what causes a herniated disc, also referred to as a disc herniation, ruptured disc or torn disc, is an important step in determining the best treatment options for your condition. For example, a doctor may recommend a different form of treatment for a herniated disc that developed gradually from weight gain as opposed to a herniated disc that developed suddenly from an auto accident.
What is the anatomy involved with a herniated disc?
The spinal column begins at the base of the skull and spans from the cervical spine in the neck through the thoracic spine in the middle back and into the lumbar spine in the lower back. Made up of 24 individual vertebral bodies and several fused vertebrae in the pelvic region, the spinal column is flexible enough to allow for the full range of motion in the neck and back that’s required for daily activity and also strong enough to support the weight of the upper body.
Serving as shock-absorbing cushions for the spine, discs are positioned between adjacent vertebrae to facilitate movement and reduce friction. Each disc has two parts: a thick exterior composed of collagen fiber (annulus fibrosus), which surrounds and contains an inner core of protein gel (nucleus pulposus). These components are high in water content and must remain well-hydrated and pliable in order to function properly. For a variety of reasons, the discs can begin to deteriorate and dehydrate over time, becoming brittle and prone to breakage. If a fissure develops in a disc’s annulus fibrosus, some of the nucleus pulposus can pass through its compromised boundary. This condition is referred to as a herniated disc. Pain and other uncomfortable symptoms can develop if displaced inner disc material — which contains inflammatory proteins — irritates or pressures the disc wall, the spinal cord or a nearby nerve root.
What are the possible causes of a herniated disc?
A herniated disc can result from a number of factors, including:
What are the signs you may have a herniated disc?
While a herniated disc does not always cause symptoms, the condition can create localized pain if the tear affects the small nerves located in the uppermost layers of the outer wall of the affected disc. Additionally, a variety of uncomfortable symptoms can develop if the disc wall or escaped nucleus pulposus exerts pressure on the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root. For instance, some people experience neck or back pain, radiating pain that travels through an arm or leg, muscle weakness, numbness, or walking difficulties.
What symptoms are associated with a herniated disc?
A herniated disc can conceivably occur in the cervical, thoracic or lumbar region of the spine, although it is most likely to develop in the cervical and lumbar spine segments. That’s because the neck and lower back are both highly flexible and responsible for supporting significant body weight, which takes its toll over time. The thoracic spine, by comparison, is far more stable because it is attached to the rib cage.
The specific symptoms associated with a herniated disc also depend on the location of the disc degeneration. Most commonly, this condition is associated with localized pain near the origin of the tear in the disc wall, although symptoms can also extend throughout the body when displaced disc material irritates or compresses a nearby nerve root or the spinal cord. In fact, when nerve root or spinal cord compression occurs, it can result in symptoms that appear far from the origin of the problem, making diagnosis by a physician necessary for effective treatment.
Here are just a few examples of the symptoms that can develop as a result of a herniated disc:
The symptoms of a herniated disc can vary widely depending on both the location and severity of the damaged disc, and many of the symptoms commonly associated with this condition can also be explained by the presence of additional spinal degeneration, including facet disease, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis. In order to effectively manage the symptoms of a herniated disc, the exact cause, location, and severity of the condition has to be identified by a medical professional.
What treatment options are available for a herniated disc?
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