Back pain and injuries can occur from accidents, such as slipping and falling, repetitive motions usually in the workplace, or automobile accidents. Dealing with back pain is a common complaint many people have and often acute back injuries can turn into chronic pain.
Having a back or even neck injury of any kind can change your day-to-day functionality and life, and impact your mental and physical health in far-reaching ways.
One common type of back injury people experience is called a herniated disk.
What Is a Herniated Disk?
Your spine has individual bones that are stacked up to create your spine. These bones are vertebrae. Then, there are cushions that are rubbery, and these are called disks. The disks are located between the vertebrae.
Within a spinal disk is a nucleus, which is soft and has a consistency like jelly. That jelly-like nucleus is surrounded by an exterior that’s rubbery and is called an annulus.
A herniated disk also called a ruptured or slipped disk, occurs when some of the nuclei of the disk are pushed out through a tear in the annulus.
A herniated disk is a type of spinal injury and it can irritate nerves that are nearby, leading to potential pain as well as weakness or numbness in a limb.
Some people have no symptoms from a herniated disk, while others can have pronounced symptoms.
What Causes a Herniated Disk?
Usually, a herniated disk is the result of disk degeneration, which is general age-related wear and tear.
As we get older, the disks in our spine become less flexible. That makes them more susceptible to rupturing or tearing even with a seemingly minor twist or a small strain.
The majority of people can’t pinpoint when their herniated disk occurred.
It could be because, for example, you lifted something heavy from your back instead of your knees. A trauma such as a fall can also cause a herniated disk less often.
Sometimes health factors can make you more likely to have a herniated disk.
For example, if you’re overweight or obese, it can put additional stress on the disks located in your lower back.
If you have a job where you do a lot of lifting or bending, it can increase your risk as can genetic factors. Smoking might also cause disks to break down more quickly because they receive less oxygen.
Some of the most important things you can do to avoid a herniated disk are also the things you should do to maintain good health overall.
For example, regular exercise and especially core-strengthening exercises can help because a strong core stabilizes and supports your spine.
Keeping good posture can reduce the pressure that you put on your spine, and lifting things the right way will help prevent the risk of a herniated disk as well.
Try to maintain a healthy weight, and if you smoke, quitting is always a good idea.
What Are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disk?
Some of the possible symptoms of a herniated disk, when symptoms do occur, include:
- Tingling or numbness
- Weakness which may cause you to be unsteady or stumble when you’re walking
- Pain in the spine that may also spread to the arms and legs
If your herniated disk is located in your lower back, you may experience symptoms such as pain and tingling in your buttocks, thighs, and calves. When this happens, the condition is known as sciatica, meaning the pain travels along the sciatic nerve.
If you have a herniated disk in your neck, you’ll most likely feel pain in your arms and shoulders.
How Is a Herniated Disk Diagnosed?
If you are experiencing back issues or other symptoms of a herniated disk, you can visit your doctor where they will likely try to determine where your pain is coming from.
With a herniated disk, usually a physical exam and your medical history are enough to make a diagnosis.
If there could be something else going on or your doctor wants to pinpoint the specific nerves affected, then they might order other tests such as X-rays, a CT scan, or a myelogram. During a myelogram, a dye is injected into your spinal fluid and then X-rays are taken. This can show where there’s pressure being put on your spinal cord or nerves.
There are also nerve conduction studies and electromyograms that may be used to show nerve damage.
What Are the Treatment Options for a Herniated Disk?
If your herniated disk is causing mild-to-moderate symptoms, there are a lot of treatment options, most of which you can manage on your own.
For example, over-the-counter pain medicines like acetaminophen or naproxen sodium may help you, and if these don’t work, your doctor may recommend cortisone injections. With cortisone injections, a corticosteroid is injected into the area where you’re having issues with your spinal nerves.
Muscle relaxers are sometimes prescribed, and much less often, opioids.
Physical therapy can help if you have a lot of pain or mobility issues.
Lifestyle changes you can make include applying heat and cold packs, and making sure you don’t spend too much time in bed. Going slow with resuming your normal activities is important too, as you’re healing.
Some people turn to alternative medicine to help them with herniated disks and other back pain problems.
Seeing a chiropractor could help, and some people also find acupuncture or regular massage useful.
Few people who have herniated disks need surgery. Surgery would likely only be something your doctor would recommend after you tried all other conservative treatment options and you were still experiencing pain.
Other reasons your doctor might think about surgery for a herniated disk would be if you were having problems standing or walking, or you were experiencing a loss of bladder or bowel control.
Some people need to have their vertebrae fused with a bone graft in severe cases.
If you think you have a herniated disk or any other back issue, speak with your doctor because coming up with a plan of treatment sooner rather than later can help prevent a more severe problem.