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Disc extrusion information

Disc extrusion describes a disc in the spine that has herniated, allowing the nucleus to break through the tough outer layer of the disc. An extruded disc may worsen over time and cause a series of painful symptoms.

Causes of disc extrusion

Disc extrusion and general damage to a disc in the spine can be caused by a number of things, but the two most common causes are injury and age.

The discs in the spine support and cushion the vertebrae. They absorb the impact of daily activities and movements to protect the vertebrae from colliding into each other. Because the discs are meant to cushion and absorb impact, they are comprised of a tough, elastic outer layer and an inner gel-like nucleus. This composition gives the discs flexibility to bend and move with the spine.

While the discs are meant to withstand shock and impact on the spine, there are certain factors that can cause them to weaken and result in disc extrusion, such as:

  • Injury — Sudden, intense impact on the spine may cause the vertebrae to clamp down on the disc between them, damaging the disc from the amount of force. This type of injury could be caused by an auto accident, sports injury, sudden fall or any other traumatic event that jars the spine.
  • Age — As the spine ages, the years of constant pressure and any excess weight placed on the spine can cause the discs to gradually weaken. When a disc weakens, the outer layer of the disc loses elasticity, causing it to bulge and expand outward under pressure. Eventually, the constant pressure and weakened outer layer can cause the disc to break open, leaking nucleus fluid into the spinal canal.

A disc extrusion does not always produce symptoms. In fact, unless a disc extrusion touches a surrounding nerve root in the spinal canal, no symptoms are experienced. If a nerve root is compressed, however, severe pain and symptoms can develop.

Symptoms of a disc extrusion

Disc extrusion symptoms can vary from person to person, but commonly involve the following:

  • Pain (local or radiating)
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Sciatica (in the lower back)
  • Limited mobility

Because the symptoms of disc extrusion develop when a nerve is pinched, the pain does not always stay local to the damaged disc — it may also travel the length of the nerve pathway. For example, a pinched nerve in the lower back may trigger pain and symptoms traveling down the buttocks, legs and feet.

For a disc extrusion caused by injury, the symptoms will appear suddenly. If the damaged disc is caused by the natural aging process, the symptoms will develop slowly and may worsen with time. For this reason, it is important to monitor any pain in your neck or back that lasts longer than a week. If the pain continues and seems unresponsive to home remedies, you should schedule an appointment with your primary doctor to diagnose the cause of your pain.

Diagnosing a disc extrusion

To diagnose a disc extrusion, your doctor will likely use three methods:

  • Asking questions about your symptoms
  • Performing a physical examination
  • Ordering an imaging test (MRI or CT scan)

Your doctor will begin your appointment by asking a series of questions about your symptoms, such as how they started, when they began and the level of intensity. You may also be asked about your family history of spine conditions and your current activity level. These questions will help your doctor identify what caused the development of your spine condition and what the best methods of treatment may be.

The next step during your initial appointment will be a physical evaluation. Your doctor will examine areas of your spine by pressing along the spine and nerve pathways. This helps to identify the core location of the pinched nerve — and possibly the damaged disc — in the spine. Once this is complete, your doctor will order an imaging test for that specific area to have a clear view of what is compressing the nerve in your spine.

Conservative treatments for a disc extrusion

A disc extrusion can often be treated conservatively with a series of doctor-recommended, nonsurgical treatments. These methods of treatment are designed to relieve pressure from the damaged disc and the pinched nerve, and in some cases, prevent the pinched nerve from sending pain signals to the brain.

Common methods of conservative treatment for a disc extrusion include:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Chiropractic care
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Stretching and yoga
  • Corticosteroid injections

If these treatments do not reduce your pain and symptoms after several months, your doctor may recommend spine surgery as a more advanced treatment for your disc extrusion.

Spine surgery for a disc extrusion

At Laser Spine Institute, we offer minimally invasive spine surgery to treat a disc extrusion. Our minimally invasive procedures are alternatives to traditional open neck or back surgery, and our patients experience a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication.

Often, our minimally invasive discectomy procedure is recommended to treat a damaged disc. During a minimally invasive discectomy procedure, a small portion of the disc extrusion is removed, relieving pressure on the pinched nerve. This procedure is performed through a less than 1-inch incision, contributing to our lower risk of complication and infection compared to traditional open spine surgery.

To find out if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive procedures, request a no-cost MRI review* from Laser Spine Institute today.