What is a herniated disc? Guide to causes and treatment

By Michael Perry, M.D.

A herniated disc occurs when the gelatinous core of a disc pushes through a tear in the disc’s outer layer. Many herniated discs remain undiagnosed because they generate no symptoms or only lead to mild neck or back pain when the torn disc wall becomes inflamed. More severe symptoms can occur when the extruded core causes compression of spinal nerves.

Herniated disc causes

Spinal discs are natural shock absorbers between the vertebrae. Discs have two main components, an outer layer and an inner soft gelatinous core. The core of the disc squeezes outward against the more elastic outer layer which is able to push the inner disc back into position, reestablishing a healthy height and shape to the disc.

As we age, the discs dry out which can lead to small tears that naturally develop in the fibers of the outer layer, leading to a loss of elasticity in the outer layer. If a tear in the outer layer becomes large enough, inner-disc material can push through, forming a disc herniation. When the extruded portions place pressure on an adjacent nerve root or the spinal cord, severe symptoms might be generated. Herniated discs that do not place pressure upon nerve endings in the wall of the disc, or a nearly nerve root, are most often asymptomatic and go unnoticed.

How is a herniated disc treated?

Disc degeneration, one of the main contributing factors in the development of a herniated disc, is a fact of life. In addition to simply growing older, our susceptibility to this condition can also be affected by obesity or smoking; people who do a great deal of lifting, twisting or bending also run a higher risk of developing this condition. Once a diagnosis of a herniated disc is complete, your physician may prescribe pain medication, heat or cold packs and lifestyle or activity changes. Many patients respond well after implementing such conservative treatment plans, but for some, their symptoms are too severe for conservative treatments to adequately relieve pain.

If your symptoms from a herniated disc have not responded well to conservative treatments, your physician may recommend surgery. However, a highly invasive traditional open spine procedure does not have to be your only surgical option. Laser Spine Institute’s board-certified surgeons+ are specially trained in performing minimally invasive spine procedures. We offer a range of outpatient decompression procedures and stabilization procedures intended to treat spine problems with a reduced risk of complication compared to traditional open spine surgery.

For more information or to receive a no-cost review of your MRI or CT scan* to determine if you are a potential candidate for one of our procedures, contact us today.