What is a Herniated Disc?

Herniated spinal disc

A herniated disc is an injury that can occur anywhere along the spine but most commonly occurs in the lower back. Other names for this condition include a bulging, protruding or ruptured disc, and it is one of the most common causes of lower back pain. Although a herniated disc can be extremely painful, many people do feel better after a few weeks or months of nonsurgical treatment.

What is a herniated disc?

Let’s start with a review of the anatomy.   In the spine, there is a column of bones stacked on top of each other.  These bones are called vertebrae.  In between each bone is a spinal disc.  You can think of the disc like a jelly donut.  It is made of a firmer outer ring (called the annulus) and an inner jelly-like substance (called the nucleus pulposus).

A disc will begin to herniate when the jelly-like nucleus begins to push against its outer ring because of wear and tear or sudden injury. This pressure may cause lower back pain. If the pressure persists then it is possible for that jelly-like nucleus to push all the way through the disc’s outer ring or cause the ring to bulge, in turn putting pressure on the spinal cord or nearby nerve roots. The disc material also releases chemical irritants that contribute to nerve inflammation which may lead to pain, numbness and even weakness in one or both of your legs. This condition is also known as sciatica.

What causes a herniated disc?

The most common cause of a herniated disc is the age-related wear and tear on the spine called disc degeneration. Children and young adult’s discs contain a high water content which decreases with age, causing the discs to become less flexible. The discs then begin to shrink, narrowing the spaces between the vertebrae and making the discs more prone to herniation. Other causes and risk factors that may result in a herniated disc include:

  • A traumatic event such as a fall can also cause a herniated disc
  • Gender, with men between 20 – 50 are more prone to herniated discs
  • Improper lifting techniques
  • Being overweight adds stress on the lower back discs
  • Repetitive injuries that strain your back (flexion and twisting)
  • Frequent driving and staying seated for long periods
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Smoking can lessen the oxygen supply to discs and lead to rapid degeneration

What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?

In most cases, lower back pain is the first symptom of a herniated disc. This pain may persist for a few days before improving. Other symptoms may include: Sciatica which is a sharp, shooting pain that extends from the buttock down  one or both legs

  • Numbness or tingling in the leg and/or foot
  • Weakness in the leg and/or foot
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (this is extremely rare and indicative of a more serious spinal nerve root compression)

What are the treatments for a herniated disc?

For most patients, a herniated disc will slowly improve over time. Not everyone is that fortunate though. Many patients are told that steroid epidurals or invasive surgery are their only treatment options.

Steroid epidurals that place the steroid medication around inflamed or irritated nerves in the spine can help the patient avoid surgery for some time. But a  high dose of steroids can cause side effects and actually reduce the body’s ability to heal, leading to the degeneration of the tissue and speeding up the need for surgery.

Spinal fusion surgery is highly invasive and has a big risk of complications. 76% of patients still require narcotics for pain after surgery and patients who have gone under the knife usually miss three times as much work compared to those who do not.  Disc surgery also has downsides.  If the disc is surgically cut or shaved down, this weakens the structure of the disc and can lead to a repeat herniation or disc degeneration down the road.

What is Interventional Orthopedics?

Interventional Orthopedics provides a non-surgical alternative that makes use of your very own cells to repair any damage. Using image guidance, at Atlantic Regenerative we precisely place high-dose stem cells or platelets from your body, directly to where they are needed in the spine.  These cells then work in the site of your injury to help repair the tissue. Best of all, your downtime will be a fraction of surgery, with little to no need for opioid pain medications or time off work.

If you suspect or know that you have a herniated disc, contact us or call our patient care coordinators today to get started on your path to recovery.