Herniated Disc Defined and Explained

Chances are you’ve heard of herniated discs. However, unless you’ve been diagnosed with this specific condition, it’s likely you don’t know exactly what a herniated disc is, beyond the fact that a herniated disc is located in the spine and can be very painful.

When you are looking for a clearer understanding of what a herniated disc is and why it hurts, taking time to review the basics of spinal anatomy can be helpful.

The beginnings of 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 is required for daily activity, and strong enough to support the weight of the upper body.

Resting in between your vertebral bodies are intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers for the spine. These discs, each composed of a thick outer wall (annulus fibrosus) and a gel-like inner core (nucleus pulposus), facilitate movement and reduce friction between vertebrae. Over time and for a variety of reasons, these discs can deteriorate to the point that the outer wall ruptures, and this condition is called a herniated disc. The gel-like substance from inside the disc can leak out and irritate the disc wall, spinal cord or its protruding nerve roots, causing pain.

What causes a herniated disc?

Herniated discs can arise due to a number of risk factors, including:

  • Genetics – If one or more of your immediate family members have a history of herniated discs or other degenerative spine conditions, you may be more likely to develop similar conditions.
  • The normal aging process – Over time, the spinal components begin to degenerate. Herniated discs and other disc injuries are often the first signs of spinal degeneration. Disc herniation is often brought on by the gradual loss of water content within a disc and its resulting weakening.
  • Severe trauma such as a car accident or repetitive stress from extended sitting or heavy lifting – If you endure any form of forceful impact to the spine, it is possible that you’d experience an immediate disc herniation. Repetitive stress and strain also can contribute to a disc’s deterioration, as microscopic tears in a disc’s outer wall (annulus fibrosus) build up over time and continually weaken it.
  • Unhealthy diet – Eating an unbalanced diet with little nutritive value can contribute to disc deterioration not only via weight gain if too many calories are consumed, but also by depriving the spine of the nutrients it needs to remain pliable and strong.
  • Being overweight or having a sedentary lifestyle – Extra weight, particularly in the midsection, can place undue stress on the spinal components, including the intervertebral discs.
  • Abuse of substances including alcohol and tobacco – Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of disc herniation.

How do I know when I have a herniated disc?

Just like almost any other injury, a disc tear can be painful as local nerves in the disc wall become irritated and inflamed. Additionally, as herniated discs interfere with the nearby spinal cord and peripheral nervous system, symptoms can be wide-ranging. They include neck and lower back pain, radiating or “shooting pain” in the limbs on one side of the body, muscle weakness and spasms, numbness of the limbs and walking difficulties.

A closer look at herniated disc symptoms

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 ribcage and doesn’t have the same mobility nor does it support the same weight load.

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 the extruded disc material irritates 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 at-home diagnosis difficult if not impossible.

Here are just a few examples of the symptoms that can develop as a result of a herniated disc:

  • Cervical herniated disc – localized pain in the neck, a sensation of pins and needles, muscle weakness and numbness that permeate through the shoulders, arms, hands or fingers
  • Thoracic herniated disc – upper back pain that can radiate into the chest or stomach, back stiffness and muscle weakness; symptoms caused by a herniated disc in the thoracic spine can also be incorrectly attributed to a problem with the heart, gastrointestinal tract or lungs
  • Lumbar herniated disc – discomfort in the lower back, pain that travels into the lower body, pain in one or both legs, weakness or tingling in the lower extremities, diminished reflexes and muscle spasms; in rare cases patients with a herniated disc in their lumbar spine may experience a loss of bowel or bladder control, which can indicate cauda equina syndrome, an emergency condition that requires immediate medical attention

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.

If you have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, and your physician has tried to treat it without success, contact Laser Spine Institute for an initial consultation. Our trained professionals can review your MRI scans and possibly suggest an outpatient treatment that may alleviate your symptoms.

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