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Herniated disc overview

A herniated disc is a disc in the spine that has torn open, letting the nucleus of the disc protrude into the spinal canal. Often, this condition develops slowly as the spine degenerates with age. However, it can also develop from sudden injury or trauma to the spine.

Often, a herniated disc develops gradually and progresses through various stages of a damaged disc, such as a degenerative disc to a bulging disc to a herniated disc. Because a herniated disc is one of the last stages of degenerative disc disease, it is likely for patients to experience symptoms of pain and difficulty moving from this condition. In some cases, symptoms may develop as the disc begins to deteriorate and then worsens as the disc progresses to a herniation.

Fortunately, there are many treatments available for a herniated disc. Herniated disc treatments range from nonsurgical to surgical, and can even include the body’s natural resorption process — the process by which the body absorbs the herniated disc material into the blood stream and increases circulation to the damaged disc to begin healing.

Causes of a herniated disc

A herniated disc is often caused by the natural deterioration of the spine with age.

Over time, the discs in the spine that are meant to cushion the vertebrae and absorb the shock of daily activities begin to wear down. The elasticity in the disc’s outer layer begins to weaken as the surrounding vertebrae constantly press against it. This compression causes the disc’s inner fluid to flatten and expand, pressing against the outer layer of the disc and eventually causing the disc to bulge. This is the first step of a degenerative herniated disc — a bulging disc.

As the disc begins to bulge, the outer layer of the disc continues to weaken. There is added stress to the disc with every movement, causing the bulging disc to worsen with time. Eventually, the disc’s outer layer will weaken to the point that it tears slightly, allowing the disc’s nucleus to escape into the spinal canal.

In some cases, a herniated disc is caused by sudden trauma to the spine, such as a fall, auto accident or sports injury. In these cases, the disc often moves straight to the herniation phase, as opposed to a degenerative herniated disc that often begins as a bulging disc and gradually worsens.

When a disc herniates, pieces of the herniated disc or the nucleus material can compress a nearby nerve root or the spinal cord itself, causing painful symptoms to develop.

Symptoms of a herniated disc

In some cases, though not often, a herniated disc can go unnoticed because the fragments of disc material have not compressed a nearby nerve root. However, most of the time, it can pinch a local nerve or the spinal cord itself, causing one or more of the following herniated disc symptoms to develop:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Limited mobility
  • Sharp pain with certain movements
  • Difficulty walking

These symptoms can develop at the site of the pinched nerve in the neck or back or radiate down the nerve pathway into other areas of the body, such as the arms or legs.

If these symptoms develop, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to receive a diagnosis of what is causing your pain and the treatments available to you.

Diagnosing a herniated disc

Typically, a herniated disc is diagnosed with an MRI test or CT scan. These two diagnostic tests show an image of your spine, allowing your doctor to distinctly see what is causing your pain and symptoms.

If a herniated disc is diagnosed, your doctor can recommend a series of conservative treatments to help you find pain relief.

Treatment options for a herniated disc

For many people, treatment for a herniated disc begins conservatively with a series of nonsurgical treatments, which could include:

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

These treatments often take about two or three months before effective pain relief can be experienced. However, not all people will find relief through conservative treatments. Some may be recommended for spine surgery.

If you’ve been recommended for spine surgery, Laser Spine Institute offers a minimally invasive alternative to traditional open neck and back surgery. Our minimally invasive procedures offer a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication compared to traditional open back surgery, often making us the clinically appropriate first choice between the two options.

To treat a herniated disc, we offer minimally invasive discectomy procedures. These types of procedures are used to remove a small portion of the damaged disc to relieve pressure on the pinched nerve and reduce the pain and symptoms of your condition.

Find out if you’re a candidate for our minimally invasive procedures today by contacting Laser Spine Institute for a no-cost MRI review*.