A herniated disc is one of the most common causes of back pain and pain that radiates from the back into the extremities. Each year, up to 2% of the population develops a problem with this spinal cushioning structure, the largest group being men ages 30-50.
Do you know the warning signs of a herniated disc?
At Pinnacle Pain and Spine, pain management specialists Dr. Matthew Crooks and Dr. Stuart Rammell treat bulging and herniated discs at their Scottsdale, Chandler, and Fountain Hills, Arizona locations.
They want you to understand the warning signs of a herniation, so you’ll know when to get medical help.
As your backbone, your spine supports your entire body and allows you to stand up straight. That support comes from 24 bony vertebrae stacked one on top of the other and extends from the base of the skull to the tailbone. The vertebrae are connected with facet joints that allow you to bend and flex.
Between each pair of vertebrae sits an intervertebral disc. It both prevents the bones from grating against each other and cushions against the stresses of walking, jumping, and twisting.
Each disc contains two parts: a hard outer shell (annulus) and a viscous interior (nucleus). Trauma either from an injury or age-related wear-and-tear can cause the annulus to rupture, allowing the nucleus to ooze out into the spinal canal, the area that contains the spinal cord and cerebrospinal fluid.
If the nuclear material presses against nerve roots inside the column (referred to as compression, impingement, or pinching), the nerve responds by sending pain signals that may travel along its path into the extremities, leading to weakness and/or numbness in an arm or leg. This radiating pain is known as radiculopathy.
The spine is divided into four major sections: cervical (neck), thoracic (chest), lumbar (lower back), and iliosacral (tailbone). Disc herniation can occur anywhere along the spine, but it’s most common in the cervical and lumbar regions, since those are the sections that undergo the most movement.
The most common and best-known symptom of a herniated disc is pain, which, if a nerve root is impinged, can be severe and unrelenting. You usually feel it on just one side, and it radiates into an arm or leg, depending on which nerve is affected.
One example of radiculopathy is sciatica, when the sciatic nerve root becomes compressed. Though the root is in the lumbar region of the spine, you primarily feel the pain running through your buttocks and down the outside of one leg, sometimes extending into your foot.
Other warning signs of a herniated disc include:
The exact nature of your symptoms depends on where the compressed nerve root lies and the force the herniated material exerts on it.
While disc herniation can occur due to injury, there are other risk factors for developing a herniated disc:
You can’t change your risk for age-related disc degeneration, but all of the other factors are within your control. Even eliminating one or two factors can make a difference to your spine.
Treatments for a herniated disc are usually conservative and nonsurgical. To start, we may recommend over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications if your pain is only mild to moderate.
If it’s more severe, we may recommend an epidural steroid injection, where we use a spinal needle under X-ray guidance to direct the medication to the location of the herniation.
We may also recommend physical therapy (PT), which is designed to relieve pain and improve mobility. PT may include pelvic traction, massage, ice and heat therapy, stretching exercises, ultrasound, and/or electrical muscle stimulation.
You may use pain medication and/or muscle relaxants in conjunction with the therapy.
Surgery is the option of last resort, when conservative methods have failed.
If you’re experiencing any of the signs of a herniated disc, it’s time to come into Pinnacle Pain and Spine for an evaluation and treatment. To schedule a consultation with one of our pain specialists, call us at any of our locations or request your appointment online.