What role do discs play in the spine?
Discs are the shock absorbers that separate the bones in the spine. They are like jelly doughnuts with an outside wall and a soft center. Discs allow movements in all directions while providing the strength to keep you upright. Outer layers of each disc attach to outer portions of the bones to effectively hold your spine together.
What causes disc problems?
As we age, our discs can become more brittle and prone to rupturing (or herniating). Years of strain and heavy lifting can also leave us more vulnerable to disc damage. A rupture results in chemicals from the jelly squirting out and causing extreme irritation and swelling of the surrounding nerves.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of a herniated disc vary greatly depending on the position of the herniated disc and the size of the herniation. If the disc is not pressing on a nerve, you may have an ache in the lower back. When the disc is pressing on a nerve you’ll often have pain, numbness, or weakness in the area of your body to which the nerve travels known as radiating or radicular pain (often people will refer to this as ‘sciatica’). Pain from a herniated disc is often, but not always, felt below the knee.
How are disc problems diagnosed?
The diagnosis of disc problems begins with a physical examination at which your physician will determine nerve function in your arms and legs as well as muscle strength. Your physician will also review your full medical history to determine what causes may be contributing to your pain.
Once your physician identifies possible causes of your pain, diagnostic tests may be performed to confirm the existence of a disc problem. This includes x-ray scans, CT and MRI. MRI is the most common and effective.
How do you treat disc issues?
Unlike muscles that can heal somewhat quickly, a torn or degenerated disc heals more slowly. The good news is that in many cases the pain and inflammation originating from damaged discs can be treated non-surgically with physical therapy, exercise, rest and medicine. Injections can give significant relief from the nerve pain and often may help patients avoid surgery. Surgery is performed for less than 10 percent of people who have a herniated disc. That is why we believe in our conservative model at Summit.
Is there anything I can do at home to help?
There are several things you can do to reduce the pain:
- Find a comfortable position and rest, perhaps with a pillow under your knees.
- Take short walks, as your pain allows.
- Take medications that reduce pain, swelling and irritation, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (such as Advil or Motrin) or naproxen (such as Aleve)
- Try applying heat or ice.
- If you have significant weakness in the leg, it could be a sign of more significant nerve compression and we would recommend a more urgent evaluation by one of our providers.
Ask the Expert: Spine Video Series
The discs of the spine give our back flexibility and strength. Over time, a disc may bulge or become herniated; we explain the difference between these types of disc injury and tell you when this damage may require medical treatment.
Degenerative disc disease and related conditions are some of the most common causes of low back and neck pain. Understanding these diseases is the first step toward effective treatment.