image of a male running or jogging putting pressure on lower left back with both hands as if in pain

A herniated disc, sometimes referred to as a bulged, slipped, or ruptured disc, is a common spinal condition that affects over 3 million people a year in the United States. While there are a number of herniated disc symptoms, the symptoms differ depending upon which part of the spine is affected.

The bones that form the spine are cushioned by small, round soft pads called discs that separate the bones. Discs have a soft, jellylike center (the nucleus) which is surrounded by a tougher, rubbery exterior (the annulus). A herniated disc occurs when some of the nucleus gets squeezed out through a tear in the annulus into the spinal canal. The spinal canal has limited space and sometimes cannot fit both the spinal nerve and the displaced disc. This can cause the disc to press on the spinal nerves, which can cause serious pain.

Herniated Disc Symptoms

Most herniated discs occur in the lower back, but they can also occur in the neck. The symptoms depend on where the disk is situated and whether it is putting pressure on a nerve. Herniated discs usually affect one side of the body but they can cause symptoms on both sides at times.

Herniated Disc in the Back

Image of male holding his back right with a x-ray image of a spine superimposed and highlighted in red.

Symptoms of a herniated disc in the lower spine can include:

  • Low back pain
  • Radiating or burning pain that shoots down all or part of the leg from the buttock to the foot
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs and/or feet
  • Muscle weakness of one or both legs
  • Balance issues and falling
  • Inability to control your bowel or bladder

Slipped Disc in the Neck

Symptoms of a herniated disc in the neck can include:

  • Sharp or burning neck pain
  • Radiating or burning pain that can travel to all or part of the shoulder, arm, hand, and fingers
  • Pain that increases when bending or turning the neck
  • Tingling or numbness in the arms
  • Weakness of the shoulders, elbows, wrists, hands, and fingers
  • Loss of ability to write, open jars, and fasten buttons
  • Difficulty with walking due to balance issues

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes of Slipped Discs

Herniated discs are most often the result of disk degeneration, which is gradual, aging-related wear and tear. With age, discs become dehydrated and less elastic and more susceptible to tearing with minor strains. Sometimes a major injury, like a car accident, can cause a herniated disc. Many times a slipped disc can occur without any known cause.

Risk Factors

Certain factors can increase the risk of a herniated disc. Lifting heavy objects, bending and twisting repetitively for work or sport, sitting for long periods of time in the same position, driving frequently, smoking, being overweight, and genetics can contribute to a herniated disc.

Ways to Minimize Risk

Because most herniated discs are caused by age-related disc degeneration, it is not always easy to prevent them. However, there are some actions that may reduce the risk including:

  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Exercise regularly
  • Improve posture
  • Take breaks to stretch breaks
  • Learn proper lifting techniques
  • Avoid high-heels
  • Stop smoking

How Doctors Diagnosis a Ruptured Disc

A comprehensive examination by your doctor often provides sufficient evidence for most herniated disc cases. The doctor may check your back for tenderness or ask you to move your legs into various positions while lying down to help pinpoint the cause of the pain. For neck problems, the doctor will often check the neck for tenderness and ask you to move it to see if it causes symptoms. A doctor may perform a neurological exam to check muscle strength, sensitivity to touch or vibration, walking ability, and reflexes.

If the physical exam is not enough to make a diagnosis, a doctor may order imaging and nerve tests that provide more detail. EmergeOrtho uses state-of-the-art imaging tools in their centers, including digital X-rays, CT scans, MRI scans and Myelograms. Our trained physicians also utilize nerve conduction studies (NCV’s) and Electromyography (EMG) to further pinpoint the location of the damage. Sometimes injections are performed to help distinguish different sources of pain.

Treatment Options

Most herniated discs resolve themselves with time. If the pain continues and becomes unbearable or you are having weakness, coordination issues, numbness, or bowel or bladder control issues, it is best to see a medical provider. EmergeOrtho physicians successfully resolve most herniated discs with non-surgical conservative treatment methods that may include:

  • Medication
    A combination of over-the-counter or prescription pain medications, non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), and muscle relaxers to reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Cortisone Injections
    Epidural Injections for the spine can relieve inflammation of the pinched nerves.
  • Physical Therapy
    Therapists create a personalized exercise and activity modification plan to avoid movements that cause pain and to alleviate herniated disc symptoms.
  • Cold or Heat Compress Therapy
    Cold and hot compresses for up to 20 minutes, several times a day may help to ease discomfort.
  • Rest
    Proper rest can help decrease uncomfortable side effects and help encourage recovery. Strict bedrest, however, is generally discouraged.

Minimally Invasive Surgery

Herniated disc surgery may be recommended for your low back if: non-surgical treatments have not alleviated the pain, numbness and/or weakness continue, standing and walking is difficult, or there is a loss of bladder or bowel control. In minimally invasive disc surgery, surgeons most often remove only the protruding portion of the disc through a small incision in your low back. Rarely is the entire disc removed in isolated disc herniations. Most patients are able to walk pain-free the day after surgery.

Herniated disc surgery may be recommended for your neck if: non-surgical treatments have not alleviated the pain, some numbness and/or weakness continue, standing and walking is difficult, or there is a loss of bladder or bowel control. In minimally invasive disc surgery the surgeon may remove the protruding portion of the disc through a small incision on the back of the neck. However, many disc herniations may need removal of the entire disc with fusion of the bones of the vertebrae or replacement with an artificial disc.

At EmergeOrtho, our goal is to help our patients return to the activities they love as quickly as possible. Our patient-centered, team approach assures you will receive the highest quality treatment from the coordinated efforts of our board-certified orthopedic physicians, diagnostic technicians, pain management experts, and highly experienced physical and occupational therapists.

There is no need to wait for relief from neck and back pain. Request an appointment today.

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