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Ruptured disc overview

A ruptured disc is another name for a herniated disc, which is a disc in the spine that has torn open due to constant pressure from the surrounding vertebrae.

Often, a ruptured disc is considered a degenerative spine condition. A degenerative spine condition, like the name suggests, is a condition that develops slowly as the spine wears down from the natural aging process. Because this is a gradual development, a ruptured disc often begins as a bulging disc and then worsens over time.

For many patients, a ruptured disc comes with painful symptoms that can put a damper on daily activities. Any sort of bending or twisting may become difficult in light of this condition, causing simple tasks like household chores and walking the dog to be painful and seemingly impossible. In these situations, there are several types of nonsurgical and surgical treatment options available to help patients find relief.

Causes of a ruptured disc

As previously stated, a ruptured disc is often caused by the natural weakening of the spine with age. This type of natural degeneration has a large impact on the spinal discs, causing them to wear down and dehydrate — making them susceptible to damage.

One reason the spinal discs are particularly susceptible to damage is because they have the responsibility of absorbing the shock of the body to protect the other elements of the spine. To do this, the discs must be made of a tough, yet flexible material which allows them to bend and move with the daily motions of the spine. The exterior of a spinal disc is made of a tough, elastic fiber, allowing the disc to move and bend without tearing (normally). The nucleus of the disc has a thick, jelly consistency, which also allows for flexibility and shock absorption.

Over time, as the discs undergo continual pressure from the vertebrae during daily movements and weight gain with age, the elasticity in the disc’s outer layer begins to weaken. As the nucleus presses against the weakened outer fiber, the disc can form a bulge — this is called a bulging disc. If no preventative steps are taken and the damaged disc continues to worsen, the pressure on the disc’s outer layer can increase until it rips or tears, letting the nucleus protrude into the spinal canal. This is a ruptured disc.

When a disc ruptures, the escaped nucleus and/or the ruptured disc fragments can leak into the spinal canal and compress a nearby nerve root. This is the cause of the pain and symptoms often associated with a ruptured disc.

Symptoms of a ruptured disc

The most telltale sign that you have developed a ruptured disc in your spine is the painful and sometimes debilitating symptoms that often accompany this condition. For many people, a pinched nerve caused by a ruptured disc will result in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle spasms
  • Limited mobility
  • Burning sensation

These symptoms can develop at the site of the ruptured disc and can travel the extent of the pinched nerve pathway, leading into other areas of the body like the arms or legs. For example, symptoms from a ruptured disc in the lumbar spine (lower back) may travel from the lower back all the way to the legs and feet, making tasks like walking and standing difficult.

If you begin to experience these symptoms, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to diagnose the cause of your pain. As with many other degenerative spine conditions, a ruptured disc left untreated will often continue to worsen.

Diagnosing a ruptured disc

When you visit your physician to discuss your pain and symptoms, you can often expect a two-part exam.

The first step to diagnose your condition is to perform a physical evaluation. During this step, your doctor will press into different areas of your spine to locate the exact point of your pinched nerve. While your doctor is performing the physical evaluation, he or she will often ask questions about your symptoms as well as your current lifestyle and medical history. These questions will help him or her determine how your condition developed and the most appropriate treatment method for your lifestyle.

Once a physical evaluation is performed, your doctor will likely order a medical imaging test, often a MRI or CT scan, to clearly view the anatomy of your spine and make an accurate diagnosis. If your doctor diagnosis you with a ruptured disc, there are several nonsurgical and surgical treatment options available to help you find pain relief.

Treatments for a ruptured disc

Many patients are able to find relief from a ruptured disc through conservative methods of treatment, such as:

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

These treatments help reduce the symptoms of a ruptured disc while the body begins to heal itself through natural resorption — the process by which the ruptured disc material is absorbed into the blood stream and the body increases circulation to the damaged disc to begin healing.

In some cases, conservative treatment is ineffective after several months of therapy, and spine surgery is recommended. At Laser Spine Institute, we offer minimally invasive alternatives to traditional open neck or back surgery. Because our procedures are minimally invasive, our patients can experience a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication compared to traditional open spine surgery.

If you’ve been suffering from a ruptured disc, it’s time to take a step toward pain relief and recapture your quality of life. Contact Laser Spine Institute today for a no-cost MRI review* to find out if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures.