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Prolapsed disc overview

A prolapsed disc is a spine condition that describes a damaged or torn disc. Also referred to as a herniated disc, a prolapsed disc often develops with the natural degeneration of the spine and affects older adults.

For some, symptoms of a prolapsed disc remain undetected for months or years, concealing this condition from the patient. However, if a damaged disc presses against a nerve root in the nearby spinal canal, symptoms of pain and discomfort will develop and prompt a visit to the doctor’s office.

Many people are able to find relief from the symptoms of a prolapsed disc through several months of conservative, nonsurgical treatment. If this type of treatment proves ineffective after this time, spine surgery may be recommended for pain relief.

Before you can begin to discuss treatments with your doctor, you must first understand what caused your prolapsed disc to develop.

Causes of a prolapsed disc

A prolapsed disc is often considered a degenerative spine condition, which means it develops gradually as the spine breaks down from years of natural wear and tear.

The discs in the spine are particularly susceptible to degenerative conditions because they are responsible for supporting and cushioning the vertebrae and absorbing the impact of daily activities. Every bend and twist is cushioned by the spinal discs to help prevent the vertebrae from grinding against each other or causing damage.

To allow daily movement and stability, spinal discs must be strong and flexible. The outer layer of the disc is made of an elastic, tough material called annulus fibrosis. The disc’s inner nucleus is comprised of a thick, jellylike substance, which allows the disc to bend and move.

As the body moves and bends with daily activities, the discs in the spine bend and compress to absorb the shock. Additionally, weight gain adds pressure to the discs, gradually weakening the tough outer layer of a disc. Over time, as the outer layer of the disc weakens, the disc can develop a tear or slight crack, which can allow the nucleus to escape into the spinal canal.

While the natural aging and weakening of the spine is the most common cause of a prolapsed disc, other causes include sudden trauma and repetitive motion injury.

Symptoms of a prolapsed disc

As a prolapsed disc begins to develop, there are often no symptoms experienced. This is because prolapsed disc symptoms only occur when the protruding nucleus or damaged disc material presses against a nearby nerve root in the spinal canal or the spinal cord itself.

When this happens, the following prolapsed disc symptoms may be experienced:

  • Pain
  • Muscle fatigue or weakness
  • Stiffness
  • Limited mobility
  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Burning sensation

These symptoms are often felt at the site of the damaged disc, though they can travel into other areas of the body depending on the severity of the pinched nerve. For example, a prolapsed disc in the lumbar spine (lower back) can cause symptoms to appear in the buttocks, legs and feet.

If these symptoms develop and do not go away after a week of at-home treatment, you should contact your doctor for an accurate diagnosis of what is causing your pain. Once a diagnosis is made, you can begin discussing treatment options to help you get back to your normal lifestyle.

Diagnosing a prolapsed disc

While every diagnostic appointment will begin with a series of questions about your symptoms and lifestyle, possibly the most important aspect of diagnosing a prolapsed disc is the medical imaging tests.

Your doctor will likely order an MRI or CT scan to view your spine and determine if a prolapsed disc or other spine condition is to blame for your symptoms. Not only do these tests allow your doctor to diagnose the cause of your pain, but they also allow him or her to pinpoint the location of your pinched nerve. This is helpful when recommending at-home stretches and exercises to help with your pain relief.

Treatments for a prolapsed disc

A prolapsed disc can sometimes be treated with a series of conservative therapies recommended by your doctor. Conservative treatment helps alleviate the pain and symptoms of a prolapsed disc while your body begins to heal itself through the natural resorption process. This occurs which your body absorbs the prolapsed disc material into the blood stream and increases circulation to the damaged disc to begin healing.

While your body is healing, conservative treatments can be used to help alleviate the painful symptoms of this condition. Common conservative treatments for a prolapsed disc include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Stretches
  • Yoga
  • Corticosteroid injections

If after several months your pain has not subsided or significantly reduced, your doctor may recommend spine surgery as a prolapsed disc treatment.

At Laser Spine Institute, we offer a minimally invasive alternative to traditional open neck or back surgery. Our minimally invasive procedures treat a prolapsed disc by removing a small portion of the damaged disc to relieve pressure on the pinched nerve. This is done through a smaller incision than what is used during traditional open spine surgery, allowing our patients to benefit from lower risks and a shorter recovery time.^

Contact us today for a no-cost MRI review* to find out if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures.