What Is a Herniated Disc and What Can You Do If You Have One?

By Dr. Tim Fargo, Chiropractor

If you, or someone you know, has suffered from lower back pain, then you have probably heard about a “herniated disc”. Some people, even some doctors, refer to this phenomenon as a “slipped disc”. As you will see in a moment, there is no such thing as a slipped disc. Discs do not “slip”, they only herniate.

A “disc” in the term “herniated disc” is the cushion material between each of the vertebrae. As you can see in the diagram below, these discs are sitting right in front of the spinal cord and also the spinal nerve roots that go out to all the different parts of the body. In the cross-sectional view, you can see that the disc consists of two separate parts. The outer portion is called the “annulus”. This portion of the disc is a multilayered and relatively firm ring of cartilage. The annulus is designed to resist twisting forces and compression. In the center of the disc is a portion called the “nucleus”. The nucleus is gelatinous in nature and, as such, is relatively noncompressible.

disc-herniationAs gravity bears down on your spine, and especially as you run, walk, jump, or do other things that increase the force of gravity on the spine, the discs absorb shock and protect the spinal bones and also the delicate nerve tissue that is in close proximity to the back of the disc. As the spine ages and accumulates various insults and trauma, the fibers in the outer part of the disc (the annulus) can begin to tear. When this process gets bad enough, the gelatinous material in the nucleus can push its way outward and start to compress the nerve tissue and even the spinal cord itself. You can see in the diagram below how the nucleus is no longer contained by the annulus and is starting to squish out of the confines of the annulus and put pressure on the nerve root.

disc-herniation-nerve-pressureThis is the phenomenon known as “disc herniation”. This type of damage to a disk can result from repeated micro trauma, like prolonged sitting, repetitive bending and twisting, lack of flexibility and movement, and a host of other factors. A singular traumatic episode, such as lifting something heavy, can also cause a disc herniation, or can take a disk that is already compromised and push it over the edge. Disc herniation is quite common in the population and many of them do not produce pain or other symptoms. Whether the disc herniation is causing pain and other symptoms depends upon the size, location, and the underlying anatomy of the individual.

Common symptoms associated with disc herniation include:

  • Localized pain in the low back or neck.
  • Radiating pain down one or both legs, or arms. The location of the herniation will determine whether the pain is on one side or on both.
  • Numbness or tingling in the leg(s) or arm(s).
  • Loss of strength in one or both legs, or arm(s).
  • Muscle spasm in the low back, or neck and shoulders.
  • Alteration of deep tendon reflexes in upper or lower extremities.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control can occur in the most extreme cases of low back disc herniation.

While surgery is sometimes a solution for herniated discs, it is really a measure of last resort. In most surgeries for herniated discs the surgeon will do a microsurgical procedure to remove the offending bit of herniated disc material and decompress nerves and the spinal cord. There are varying degrees of severity, and some such surgeries require a fusion of the spine. In the low back the surgeon can enter from behind and it is relatively a simple procedure. If the herniation is in the neck, then it is a much more complicated situation, and the surgery must be performed from the front and usually requires complete removal of the disc and a spinal fusion of the affected segments.

The good news is that there are all kinds of conservative and nonsurgical approaches to help people with herniated discs. At Chiropractic Health and Wellness in Edina, Minnesota, the doctors are trained in a multitude of such approaches. Restoring normal movement to the spine, pelvis, and hips can go a long way toward reducing inflammation and relaxing the muscle spasm associated with disc herniation. Chiropractic manipulation is a time-tested method to help people with disc herniation. In addition, decompression traction therapy can reduce the pressure on the disc and allow the herniated material to retract. This axial decompression therapy is one of our specialties at Chiropractic Health and Wellness. Therapeutic exercise is often prescribed for disc herniation because muscular imbalances, weakness, and lack of flexibility will predispose a person to disc herniation. Finally, we also do a state-of-the-art treatment known as SoftWave Tissue Regeneration Therapy. This modality uses acoustic shockwaves to reduce pain and inflammation and help regenerate tissue by activating and recruiting stem cells to the injured tissue.

If you or someone you know is suffering with disc herniation, do not hesitate to contact the doctors at Chiropractic Health and Wellness. We have lots of ways to help you with disk herniation and have helped many of our patients avoid surgery.

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