A herniated disc is a common lower back injury, but did you know lower back pain is the number one cause of disability around the world, according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease study. For this blog, we spoke with our own Emory Clinic physician, Dr. Foster, to better understand those rubber like discs that sit between our spinal bones.
Your spine is made up of 26 vertebrae bones. Between them are soft disks filled with gel-like substance. These discs cushion the vertebrae bones and keep them in place. As we get older, the discs tend to degrade. When this happens, the discs lose their ability to cushion the vertebrae bones and this can lead to pain if the back is stressed.
What is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc, also commonly referred to as a ruptured disc or slipped disc, occurs when a cartilage disc in the spine becomes damaged and moves out of place. Sometimes, it can result in a pinched nerve. You can have a herniated or ruptured disc in any area of your spine but most often it affects the lumbar spine (lower back area).
How Does a Herniated Disc Occur?
When a disk is damaged, the soft rubbery center of the disk squeezes out through a weak point in the hard-outer layer. A disc may be damaged by sports injuries or accidents, repeated strain, a sudden strenuous activity or sometimes, it can happen spontaneously without any specific injury.
What Are the Risk Factors?
- Genetic predisposition
- Jobs or tasks that require you to repeatedly lift heavy objects, especially if you are lifting with your back and not your legs
- Being overweight can add stress on the discs of your lower back
- Smoking can reduce the amount of oxygen/nutrition reaching your discs to cause more rapid degeneration.
What Are the Symptoms?
- Back, 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 requires immediate medical attention.
How Do I Prevent a Herniated Disc?
- Build muscle strength in the core and legs. This stabilizes the spine, increases shock absorption and decreases overall muscle fatigue.
- Alternate activities to help prevent injury. Warm up before exercising, including stretching.
- Practice correct posture while you are walking, sitting, standing, lying down or working.
- Don’t lift with your back; use your thigh muscles to do the lifting.
What Are Herniated Disc Treatment Options?
Each patient’s treatment plan will be different and is customized based on the precise location of the pain within the spine, the severity of pain and the patient’s specific symptoms. For the most part, patients usually start with non-surgical treatment options, such as physical therapy, spinal manipulations, massage therapy and more. A process of trial and error is often necessary to find the right combination of treatments. If a course of non-surgical treatments prove ineffective, surgery may be considered as an option.
Did You Know?
Emory Healthcare has a dedicated Orthopaedics and Spine Center, with locations throughout metro Atlanta. To make an appointment, please call 404-778-3350.
By Dr. Lisa Foster
Dr. Lisa Foster is a board certified, fellowship trained interventional physiatrist, specializing in non-operative spine care. Dr. Foster has published numerous articles and presented at national conferences in the fields of spine and rehabilitation medicine. Most recently, she was a contributing author for a book chapter on the workup and conservative management of lumbar degenerative disk disease in JL Pinherio-Franco’s Advanced Concepts in Lumbar Degenerative Disk Disease.