Lower back pain has been found to be the number one cause of disability around the world, according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease study. Though many conditions can cause back pain, a herniated disc is a common cause.
Discs are the soft, rubber-like pads that fit between the bones (vertebrae) of the spinal column and cushion it. The discs allow the back to flex and bend and absorb shock.
Herniated discs, which can also be called slipped or ruptured discs, are caused when all or part of the disc is forced through a weakened part of it, which places pressure on the nearby nerve and/or spinal cord, causing numbness, and most commonly, pain. Herniated discs can occur both in the lumbar spine (lumbar herniated disc) and the cervical spine (cervical herniated disc).
This can happen when the disc moves out of place (herniates) or breaks open (ruptures) due to injury or strain. It is most commonly found to happen in the lower back, but can also affect the neck’s discs, or, even more rarely, the discs in the upper-to-middle back.
Herniated Disc Risk Factors
If you’re not sure if a herniated disc is causing your pain, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons point out a few factors that can put you more at risk:
- Usually, herniated discs are caused by the natural aging of your spine. When we’re young, our discs have a high water content, making them spongy. When we age, they begin to dry out, becoming weaker and narrowing the spaces between our vertebrae. This is called disc degeneration.
- Men between 30-50 are more likely to have a herniated disc
- Jobs or tasks that require you to repeatedly lift heavy objects can put you at risk, especially if you are lifting with your back and not your legs, or if you are twisting while you lift.
- Being overweight can add stress on the discs of your lower back
- If you are frequently in the car, staying seated for long periods of time along with the vibrations of the car, can put pressure on your spine and discs
- Staying sedentary can cause herniated discs
- Smoking can reduce the amount of oxygen reaching your discs to cause more rapid degeneration
Herniated Disc Symptoms
For most people suffering from a herniated disc, lower back pain is the first symptom. The pain may come and go, but can eventually lead to leg pain, numbness or weakness. These sensations can reach all the way below the knee, to the ankle and foot.
Additionally, the symptoms can be all or one of the following:
- Back pain
- Leg and/or foot pain (sciatica)
- Numbness or tingling in the leg and/or foot
- Weakness in the leg and/or foot
- Loss of control over the bladder or bowels (very rare.) This could be a more serious problem known as cauda equina syndrome, which is caused by compression of the spinal nerve roots. This requires immediate medical attention.
If you feel like you may be suffering from a herniated disc, see your orthopedist for a physical examination or MRI scan, so they can make sure that it’s the cause of your back pain. Due to a wide range of non-surgical and surgical treatments available, most patients are free from their symptoms in 3-4 months!
About Dheera Ananthakrishnan, MD:
Dr. Ananthakrishnan trained with one of the pioneers of scoliosis surgery, Dr. David Bradford, at the University of California at San Francisco. After completion of her fellowship, Dr. Ananthakrishnan practiced orthopedic and spine surgery for over three years at the University of Washington in Seattle. In 2007, she left Seattle to work with Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders in Port Harcourt, Nigeria. She then worked as a volunteer consultant at the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, before starting her position at Emory University. She maintains an interest in developing-world orthopedics and is currently involved in projects in the Philippines and Malawi.
Dr. Ananthakrishnan’s practice focuses on adult degenerative conditions, including scoliosis. She also treats adolescent spinal disorders as well as tumors and cervical conditions. Dr. Ananthakrishnan started practicing at Emory in 2007.
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