Herniated Disk: Small Injury, Big Effects

Everyone says, “lift with the legs!” Yet not everyone knows quite what that means, or that it’s an important technique to prevent herniating (also known as “rupturing” or “slipping”) a disk in your spine – in addition to avoiding muscle strains. But what is a herniated disk, anyway?

First of all, it’s helpful to know the components of your spine.

A column of bones called vertebrae are stacked on top of one another and connect to make your spine. The vertebrae also form a small canal that protects your spinal cord. In between your vertebrae are intervertebral disks: flat, round sections of tissue about half an inch thick that act as “shock absorbers” between your vertebrae as you move.

Your disks have two parts: an outer ring that is tough yet flexible, and a soft, jelly-like center.

When injury or chronic pressure put too much stress on one of your disks, the jelly-like center pushes against the outer ring and can sometimes squeeze all the way through. If a disk ruptures like this (“herniates” or “slips”), the jelly-like material puts pressure on the nerves in your spinal cord, causing pain.

When sharp pain is shooting through your buttocks and down one leg, that is often a sign of a herniated lumbar disk in your lower back. You may also feel numbness, tingling, or weakness. If you feel burning pain and numbness in your neck, shoulder, or arm, that could signal a herniated cervical disk in your neck.

What puts you at risk of a herniated disk?

Disks can weaken and dry out with age, which is why those middle-aged and older are more susceptible. Being overweight also puts more pressure on your disks. Although you can’t lose a few years off your age, losing a few pounds can relieve pressure on your spine.

As noted, improper lifting – using your back to lift a heavy object or twisting while you lift – can cause a disk to herniate, especially if other risk factors are involved. This is also true for repetitive activities that involve your back. Constant lifting, bending, twisting, or pulling while on the job means it’s crucial that you practice safer techniques.

Spectrum’s physical therapists can perform functional and ergonomic assessments to be sure you understand how to move efficiently and safely while performing physically demanding tasks. Your idea of “lifting with your legs” may not be protecting you if certain muscles are not engaged or your back is not aligned!

How do you treat a herniated disk?

As with many injuries, your orthopaedic surgeon will likely try non-invasive treatments first, such as taking frequent rest breaks, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications or oral steroids, cold or warm compresses, and physical therapy to strengthen your abdominal muscles and lower back (or gentle traction for your neck).

If those methods do not provide relief, you may need an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) to determine the degree of disk displacement, and to rule out other problems. Based on your MRI and additional factors, your doctor will discuss other treatment options:

  • Epidural steroid injections can reduce inflammation and pain; more than one injection may be necessary.
  • A lumbar microdiskectomy is the most common procedure for a lower back herniated disk. Your orthopaedic surgeon would remove the pieces of the disk that are putting pressure on the spinal nerve.
  • With a cervical discectomy, an entire herniated disk in your neck gets removed. Sometimes this requires fusing two vertebrae together where the disk used to be. Other times, the disk can be replaced using an artificial disk made of plastic and metal.

When the bundle of nerves in your spinal cord is impacted, life can become incredibly painful and challenging. Protect your spine in the ways that you can, listen to it when pain tells you something is wrong, and you’ll increase your chances of enjoying physical activities for years to come.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned, have interest in a functional or ergonomic physical therapy assessment, or would like to schedule an appointment, please contact Spectrum Orthopaedics. You can read more about our back and spine services here.

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