A herniated disc is a troublesome injury that can cause severe complications which have a profound negative impact on a patient’s quality of life. Read on to learn more about what a herniated disc is, how they happen, and what the most common treatments are.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
Spinal discs are structures of tissue that rest between the spine’s vertebrae. They serve a number of unique functions:
- Spinal discs provide a soft cushion between the vertebrae, so they don’t grind together.
- They’re joints, and allow the spine to bend.
- They’re tough and strong, and hold the vertebrae of the spine in place.
Because these discs serve a wide range of contradictory functions, they’ve evolved a shape that’s unique in the human body. Spinal discs are shaped like donuts, with a tough, sturdy exterior and a soft interior.
In some cases, the tough outer structure of a disc may suffer damage. This happens most commonly due to age, via a process called disc degeneration. However, acute trauma to the spine — such as in a fall or a car accident — may also cause the structure to tear.
If the tough exterior is injured, the soft tissue inside may push out or bulge. This is a herniated disc, sometimes called a slipped or ruptured disc. This damage may occur at any point in the spine, although it’s most common in the lumbar spine (the lower back).
Symptoms of a Herniated Disc
The spine serves as a major nexus of the body’s nerves, which branch out from the spine and into the extremities. A herniated disc can irritate these nerves. This is why symptoms of herniated discs will typically manifest in the arms or legs.
The most common symptoms of herniated discs include muscle weakness, numbness, tingling, or pain. This pain may occur in the legs or buttocks if the disc is in the lower back, or in the arm or shoulder if the disc is further up the spine. Occasionally, patients may only feel this discomfort in some positions or while performing certain actions.
In truly serious cases, a patient’s ability to walk or hold objects may be impaired, which can have a devastating effect on a person’s quality of life. Additionally, if the injury affects the nerves that branch into the hips, a person may experience bowel or bladder dysfunction. Some people may notice a characteristic pattern of numbness called saddle anesthesia. This loss of sensation affects the parts of a body a saddle would touch.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In order to diagnose a herniated disc, a doctor may give a battery of neurological tests to determine reflexes, muscle strength, and gait. They may use an electromyogram to assess nerve function. In some cases, they may determine it’s best to look at the actual disc. To do this, they may order X-rays, CT scans, myelograms, or MRIs.
Usually, treatment for a herniated disc usually starts fairly conservatively. First, a doctor may order a patient to avoid certain positions, take pain medications, or perform certain exercises. In some cases, this will lessen or even get rid of a patient’s discomfort within days or weeks.
In some cases, a doctor may prescribe medications. Narcotics will relieve pain that over-the-counter pain medications aren’t adequately addressing. Cortisone injections will reduce the body’s inflammatory response, and muscle relaxants will reduce spasms. Anticonvulsants may improve nerve function.
If conservative treatments don’t address the issue, or the symptoms are truly serious, a patient may need orthopedic surgery. This may entail removing the herniated part of the disc, or even removing the disc entirely and fusing the two surrounding vertebrae together.
A herniated disc can be a serious side-effect of an accident. However, the compassionate staff at Regional Medical Group work with accident patients with slipped discs, to assess the damage and determine a course of treatment that will improve the patient’s quality of life.