What is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc is a somewhat broad term that is often used interchangeably with terms like pinched nerve, slipped disc, bulging disc, ruptured disc, etc… The name generally refers to a problem with one of the rubbery cushions (discs) between the individual bones (vertebrae) that stack up to form the spine.
There are 26 bones (vertebrae) in the spinal column that are cushioned by discs. The function of these discs is to act as a shock absorber to protect the bones when we partake in daily activities like walking, twisting and lifting.
There are two parts that make up each disc:
- A soft, gelatinous inner portion
- A tough outer shell/ring
Injury, excessive strain, disease or the natural aging process can cause spinal discs to abnormally protrude (herniate) or break open (rupture). A herniated disc by itself may not cause pain or discomfort. However, if the slipped disc puts pressure on one of your spinal nerves, you may experience a variety of symptoms including numbness and pain.
What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?
Where you physically feel the symptoms of a herniated disc depends on the nerve that is affected. There are a number of symptoms associated with a herniated disc.
If you have a herniated disc in your lower back, you may experience:
- Pain, numbness, tingling or burning that is sometimes described as an electric shock sensation that runs into the buttocks, legs and/or feet
- Muscle weakness in the legs, feet or lower back
- Bowel/bladder issues
- Pain in the arms or legs
If you have a herniated disc in your neck, you may feel:
- A sharp or dull pain between or near the shoulder blades
- Muscle spasms in the neck
- Pain in the back or sides of the neck that increases in intensity when you nod or turn your head
- Tingling or numbness in the arm or shoulder region
- Pain running along the fingers, hands, arms or shoulders
If you develop a herniated disc between the lower back and neck area, you may also experience pain in the legs, lower back, abdomen or upper back. Since the symptoms of a herniated disc are so varied, a complete physical examination is often required to determine whether or not you have a herniated disc.
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
One of the most common causes of a herniated disc is aging and the degeneration (natural wear and tear) of the discs. As we get older, our spinal discs start to lose the elasticity they had in our younger years. The more rigid and brittle these discs become, the more they deteriorate and increase the possibility of a herniated disc.
A herniated disc can occur at any age but is most commonly seen in individuals between the ages of 35 and 45. Individuals who frequently perform manual labor or drive motor vehicles for extended periods of time are also at an increased risk of suffering a herniated disc
Injury is another common cause of herniated discs. This may occur through sudden heavy strain or increased pressure to the lower back or over time from repeatedly straining the spine during manual labor, sports or exposure to vibration.
How is a Herniated Disc Treated?
Treatment options for our a herniated disc patients vary depending on the source of the pain, the intensity of the pain and other specific symptoms the individual exhibits. Therefore, treatment plans are custom tailored for each patient.
In general, patients start with a more conservative approach to treatment which may include:
- Resting up coupled with ice/heat application
- Modifying their typical activities for a little while
- Anti-inflammatory meds or oral steroid medications
- Physical therapy
Epidural Steroid Injections
If the patient does not respond to conservative treatment, there are a number of minimally invasive treatments that can be employed as an alternative to a surgical procedure. Epidural Steroid Injections are an effective treatment for many of our Austin patients that do not experience relief with more conservative methods.
Epidural Steroid Injections involve the careful injection of an anesthetic and a long-acting steroid into the space near the spinal cord and compressed nerves. Guided by X-rays or CT scanning, these injections are able to very precisely target the treatment area.
Though the effects of this treatment are temporary, these injections can be very helpful for patients who are suffering from an acute episode of back and/or leg pain. An ESI can provide the necessary pain relief to allow the patient to move forward with rehabilitative programs. If the initial injection proves to be effective for the patient, she or he may have up to 3 in the period of one year.
In some cases, more aggressive treatment may be required. Surgical intervention may be necessary in the following cases.
- Patients who experience unrelenting pain for weeks despite conservative treatment
- Patients that exhibit evidence of progressive nerve damage
- Patients who have lost bladder or bowel control
In these situations, a discectomy may be the only option. This procedure entails removing the herniated disc material that is pressing on a nerve root. Recent advances in discectomy surgery have produced less invasive methods as compared to traditional, open spine surgery.
Surgeons can now access the spine by inserting a tubular retractor through a small incision. Using small instruments that fit through the center of the tubular retractor, the surgeon removes any necessary bone or disc material and places screws or rods through the device as needed.
Herniated Disc Treatment in Austin
Our providers see patients with a variety of spinal issues every day. If you are experiencing pain or numbness in the lower back, neck, arms or legs, you may be suffering from a herniated disc. At the Diagnostic Pain Center in Austin, we specialize in safe, non-surgical treatments to alleviate pain and discomfort of the back and spine.