How to Tell If You May Have a Herniated Disc

Your back hurts, but you cannot recall anything you did to cause the pain. While only a doctor can determine the source of your back pain, a herniated disc is always a possibility. This condition may affect discs in either the neck or lower back. If you experience back pain and it lasts for more than a week, or it is severe, call a back-pain doctor so you can receive an appropriate diagnosis. A doctor could also inform you on how to tell if you may have a herniated disc.

Disc Herniation

The human spine consists of 23 discs, which are attached to the vertebrae. These intervertebral discs act as the spine’s shock absorbers. Each disc is round, flat, and approximately .5 inch thick. The annulus fibrosa makes up the outer shell and is tough but flexible. The nucleus pulposus is the softer interior of the disc.

Herniated discs occur when some of the gel-like interior comprising the disc ruptures through the harder exterior, causing it to irritate and pressure nearby nerves. Herniated discs are also known as slipped, bulging, or ruptured discs. When the disc causes irritation to a nerve, the condition is often described as a pinched nerve.

Causes of Herniated Discs

As people age, their discs deteriorate from normal wear-and-tear. Discs contain a large amount of water in a younger person’s body, but lose hydration over time. As the discs get drier, they get smaller, and the vertebral space they occupy narrows.

While this is the most common cause of disc herniation, certain movements can cause a weakened disc to rupture. This may happen when lifting heavy objects or if the back twists sharply. Some people are at greater risk of disc herniation than others. Risk factors include:

  • Physically demanding occupations
  • Excess weight
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Long hours behind the wheel

Smokers are also at greater risk of disc degeneration, because smoking causes a decrease in the disc’s oxygen supply, speeding the degeneration process.

Common Symptoms

Sometimes, herniated discs do not cause any symptoms. More often, however, people experience numbness, leg or back pain, and/or weakness. Sufferers often describe the pain as shooting. Rarely, people with herniated discs develop issues with bowel and bladder control. This is always a medical emergency and anyone experiencing this symptom should immediately go to the emergency room.

Possible Treatment Plans

When diagnosing herniated discs, the doctor performs an examination and takes a medical history. Diagnostic tests such as an MRI will reveal the extent of the damage to a disc. Conservative treatment may offer pain relief for most people suffering from herniated discs. Such treatment includes the use of over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), a specific exercise program to strengthen back muscles, massage, and possibly the use of prescription muscle relaxants short-term.

If the patient does not recover within several weeks, steroid injections into the area may offer longer-term pain relief. Some people may require surgery if their pain does not respond to these conservative treatments.

Often, minimally invasive surgery will repair the disc with a relatively short recuperation period for the patient. In a worst-case scenario, where severe disc degeneration is present, the surgeon may recommend the implantation of an artificial disc to replace the badly damaged disc.

Talking to a Herniated Disc Doctor

If you are experiencing back pain, other symptoms of possible disc herniation, or would like to know how to tell if you may have a herniated disc, call today and arrange an appointment. A back-pain doctor can run diagnostic tests to determine whether you have a herniated disc. If so, they can recommend a treatment plan suited to your needs. Do not wait until the pain becomes more severe. Contact a doctor today.