FAQ’s on Herniated Disc

Herniated or Bulging DiscA spinal disc is a fluid-filled sac that is housed between each pairing of vertebrae of the spine and that acts as a cushion for the vertebrae during movement of the spine. It is thanks to the cushioning effects of the discs that the spine is able to have the large range of motion it does, and these discs move along with the spine every time it is used. Over time, the fluid contained inside a disc can be lost which will weaken both the disc and the beneficial merits of it.

After a disc has lost enough fluid to weaken the outside walls of the sac, the disc can be ruptured or torn open from simple spinal movement. This tearing of the discs outer wall is called herniation, and it is possible for a patient to have an afflicted disc and not even realize it (Natural resolution of a herniated lumbar disc.2013). Not every disc will produce problematic symptoms for patients, but the majority of herniated discs do. A herniated disc can occur at any point on the spine, but occur most frequently in the lumbar portion of the back.

What are the causes of a Herniated Disc?

The main reason a disc becomes weak enough to be torn during movement is simply a gradual loss of internal fluid throughout time. After losing enough fluid, discs become unable to provide a cushioning effect and begin to narrow. After narrowing and losing the absorbing factor, it is very common for discs to become damaged from any number of causes. It is possible for a herniated disc to occur also from a direct spinal injury that weakens or destroys part of a discs outer walls resulting in a leakage of intradisc fluid (Migration patterns of herniated disk fragments, a study on 1020 patients with extruded lumbar disk herniation.2013).

What are the symptoms of a Herniated Disc?

Herniated or Bulging Disc AlbuquerqueThe specific symptoms a patient may have will differ according to what portion of the spine the herniated disc is in. The primary symptom experience is pain focused in the location of the disc that radiates out into the surrounding tissues and structures. If the herniated disc is located in the cervical spine (the neck) patients may experience a loss of mobility or stiffness in the neck. If the disc is pinching or compressing one or more surrounding cervical nerves it can produce feelings of numbness or weakness in the shoulders, arms, and hands.

If the herniated disc is in a patient’s lumbar spine, the symptoms present will be similar but will occur in the buttocks and legs instead of the neck (Anterior herniation of lumbar disc induces persistent visceral pain: discogenic visceral pain: discogenic visceral pain.2013). Herniated discs also have symptoms that differ from bulging discs, as herniated discs lose their height due to disc deflation. A deflated disc is no longer able to provide structural support to vertebrae, and may result in bone grinding against bone during movement of the spine which can lead to other physical damage and further pain.

In one particular case (Thoracic disc herniation mimicking acute lumbar disc disease, 1999), a herniated disc in a patient’s thoracic spine produced effects very similar to that of full lumbar disc disease.

How is a Herniated Disc diagnosed?

Herniated or Bulging Disc AlbuquerqueThe primary method used for diagnosis of a herniated disc is one or more imaging techniques combined with a physical examination of the areas where symptoms are present. A very useful tool in diagnosis is a discogram, where fluid is injected into a suspected disc where it will mirror the patients’ symptoms if the injected disc in fact damaged. A discogram allows for a very reliably means of diagnosis a herniated disc.

What are the treatment options for a Herniated Disc?

Treatment will be based on the location and the severity of the disc. Common conservative methods include pain relievers and anti-inflammatory medications. Some patients may require surgery to correct their disc (such as a fusion), but physical therapy, massage, or manual manipulation may be helpful. Electrical stimulation or ultrasound therapies may also be recommended (Surgical versus Conservative Treatment for Lumbar Disc Herniation with Motor Weakness.2013) or phased rehabilitation (A phased rehabilitation protocol for athletes with lumbar intervertebraldisc herniation.2013).