How painful is a ruptured disc?
A ruptured spinal disc can cause symptoms ranging from soreness and tingling sensations to severe discomfort that’s described as searing, burning or stabbing pain. The intensity of pain that a person with a ruptured disc may experience can depend on many factors, including where in the spine the disc is located, the cause and extent of damage to the disc and the person’s physical fitness and overall health condition. Fortunately, in many cases, even patients experiencing severe pain can alleviate their symptoms through rest and a variety of conservative treatments. In other cases, though, a ruptured disc can pose a serious health risk that requires immediate medical attention.
What is a ruptured disc?
A ruptured disc is better known among medical professionals as a herniated disc. This condition occurs when one of the discs that cushion the vertebrae of the spine is damaged or starts to break down. Each disc is made up of a tough, fibrous outer layer and an inner gel-like material that has a high water content. Over time, as part of the aging process, the disc will lose water content, making it susceptible to damage. If the outer layer weakens and cracks, it may allow some of the inner material to seep into the spinal canal, where it can put pressure on the spinal cord or an adjacent nerve root. When that happens, the irritated nerve may respond by sending pain signals to the brain. Although aging is the most common cause of a ruptured disc, the disc deterioration that causes nerve compression can be accelerated by a traumatic injury, such as that suffered in a car accident, fall or high-impact sports activity.
The neck and lower back are the parts of the spine where ruptured discs most often occur. When a degenerating disc compresses a nerve in the neck, the symptoms can include pain and stiffness at the nerve compression site, as well as radiating pain, numbness, tingling and muscle weakness in the shoulders, arms and hands. The patient may also experience severe headaches.
A herniated disc in the lower back can cause debilitating pain and muscle weakness throughout the lower part of the body. If the deteriorating disc presses on the sciatic nerve, it can lead to pain that many patients describe as shooting from their back into their lower extremities, usually on one side. A ruptured disc that pinches a nerve in the lower back can also cause a serious medical condition known as cauda equina syndrome. This condition is characterized by loss of bladder or bowel function, numbness in the groin area and difficulty walking. It requires immediate medical treatment.
Treatment for a ruptured disc
In many cases, even ruptured discs that cause a high degree of pain can be successfully treated with conservative methods, including periods of rest, ice and heat therapy, stretching exercises and pain medication. However, other patients with ruptured discs may require surgery to achieve sufficient relief from their symptoms.
If you’ve been diagnosed as having a ruptured disc and several weeks or months of pursuing nonsurgical remedies have not relieved your pain, you may wish to consider the minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Laser Spine Institute as a treatment option. Our minimally invasive procedures provide many advantages versus open neck or back surgery, including less scarring and shorter recovery times.^