The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine in the back are cushioned by discs. These discs are round, like small pillows, with a tough, outer layer (annulus) that surrounds the nucleus. Located between each of the vertebra in the spinal column, discs act as shock absorbers for the spinal bones.
A herniated disc (also called bulged, slipped or ruptured) is a fragment of the disc nucleus that is pushed out of the annulus, into the spinal canal through a tear or rupture in the annulus. Discs that become herniated usually are in an early stage of degeneration. The spinal canal has limited space, which is inadequate for the spinal nerve and the displaced herniated disc fragment. Due to this displacement, the disc presses on spinal nerves, often producing pain, which may be severe.
Herniated discs can occur in any part of the spine. Herniated discs are more common in the lower back (lumbar spine), but also occur in the neck (cervical spine). The area in which pain is experienced depends on what part of the spine is affected.
Symptoms of disc herniation
Symptoms vary greatly, depending on the position of the herniated disc and the size of the herniation. If the herniated disc is not pressing on a nerve, the patient may experience a low backache or no pain at all. If it is pressing on a nerve, there may be pain, numbness or weakness in the area of the body to which the nerve travels. Typically, a herniated disc is preceded by an episode of low back pain or a long history of intermittent episodes of low back pain.
Lumbar spine (lower back)
Sciatica/Radiculopathy frequently results from a herniated disc in the lower back. Pressure on one or several nerves that contribute to the sciatic nerve can cause pain, burning, tingling and numbness that radiates from the buttock into the leg and sometimes into the foot. Usually, one side (left or right) is affected. This pain often is described as sharp and electric shock-like. It may be more severe with standing, walking or sitting. Straightening the leg on the affected side can often make the pain worse. Along with leg pain, one may experience low back pain; however, for acute sciatica the pain in the leg is often worse than the pain in the low back.
Cervical spine (neck)
Cervical radiculopathy is the symptoms of nerve compression in the neck, which may include dull or sharp pain in the neck or between the shoulder blades, pain that radiates down the arm to the hand or fingers or numbness or tingling in the shoulder or arm. The pain may increase with certain positions or movements of the neck.
treatment of disc herniation
The initial treatment for a herniated disc is usually conservative and nonsurgical. A doctor may advise the patient to maintain a low, painless activity level for a few days to several weeks. This helps the spinal nerve inflammation to decrease. Bedrest is not recommended. A herniated disc is frequently treated with nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication, if the pain is only mild to moderate. An epidural steroid injection may be performed utilizing a spinal needle under X-ray guidance to direct the medication to the exact level of the disc herniation. The doctor may recommend physical therapy. The therapist will perform an in-depth evaluation, which, combined with the doctor's diagnosis, dictates a treatment specifically designed for patients with herniated discs. Therapy may include pelvic traction, gentle massage, ice and heat therapy, ultrasound, electrical muscle stimulation and stretching exercises. Pain medication and muscle relaxants may also be beneficial in conjunction with physical therapy.
A doctor may recommend surgery if conservative treatment options, such as physical therapy and medications, do not reduce or end the pain altogether. Doctors discuss surgical options with patients to determine the proper procedure. As with any surgery, a patient's age, overall health and other issues are taken into consideration. The benefits of surgery should be weighed carefully against its risks. Although a large percentage of patients with herniated discs report significant pain relief after surgery, there is no guarantee that surgery will help.
Lumbar Spine Surgery
Lumbar laminotomy is a procedure often utilized to relieve leg pain and sciatica caused by a herniated disc. It is performed through a small incision down the center of the back over the area of the herniated disc. During this procedure, a portion of the lamina may be removed. Once the incision is made through the skin, the muscles are moved to the side so that the surgeon can see the back of the vertebrae. A small opening is made between the two vertebrae to gain access to the herniated disc. After the disc is removed through a discectomy, the spine may need to be stabilized. Spinal fusion often is performed in conjunction with a laminotomy. In more involved cases, a laminectomy may be performed. In artificial disc surgery, an incision is made through the abdomen, and the affected disc is removed and replaced. Only a small percentage of patients are candidates for artificial disc surgery. The patient must have disc degeneration in only one disc, between L4 and L5, or L5 and S1 (the first sacral vertebra). The patient must have undergone at least six months of treatment, such as physical therapy, pain medication or wearing a back brace, without showing improvement. The patient must be in overall good health with no signs of infection, osteoporosis or arthritis. If there is degeneration affecting more than one disc or significant leg pain, the patient is not a candidate for this surgery.