Definition: What is a Herniated Disc?
When we talk about a hernia, we generally refer to when an organ leaves the part of the cavity that contains it. A herniated, also referred to as bulged, slipped or ruptured disc refers to the protrusion of one of the discs located between the vertebrae of the spine. These gelatinous discs are intended to soften the column, cushion the bones and thus absorb shocks. There are also other types of hernias, such as hiatal hernia and inguinal hernia.
A herniated disc occurs as a result of a rupture in the disc nucleus, which is pushed out of the annulus (the exterior of the intervertebral disc) into the spinal canal. As a result of a developing displacement, a herniated disc produces sharp discomfort or pain as the disc begins to press on spinal nerves.
Herniated discs are most common in individuals aged between 30 and 45 years old. Men are more affected than women because they tend to use their physical strength more often, for example while playing sports or doing manual labour.
Symptoms of Herniated Disc
The vast majority of herniated discs are characterized by severe pain in the lower back - specifically the lumbar spine (L4-L5 or L5-S1 discs). This is called lumbar disc herniation. If one of the roots of the sciatic nerve is squeezed, there is pain along the leg, which is known as sciatica.
The hernia can also affect the neck region, at the level of the first vertebrae of the column. If this is the case, it's known as cervical disc herniation. In the most severe cases, it is the spinal cord that is affected, causing paralysis of certain limbs. That said, a large number of herniated discs remain asymptomatic and therefore go unnoticed. It should also be noted that herniated discs can occur at in any part of the spine.
Causes of Herniated Disc
There are several possible causes of disc herniation. It is most often caused by a wrong movement during a sudden action - for example, while lifting something heavy. Intervertebral discs can also dry out with aging, and eventually crack. Pregnant women are also prone to herniated discs, as the rapid weight gain during pregnancy increases the tension on the spine.
Diagnosis, Treatment and Recovery: How to Cure a Herniated Disc
In order to diagnose a herniated disc, a neurosurgeon will consider a patient's medical record and symptoms which will be followed by a physical examination. A scan such as an X-ray, a CT scan (computed tomography) or an MRI scan (magnetic resonance imaging) will usually be required before making a final diagnosis.
The first step in the treatment of a herniated disc is resting to relieve the spine. However, it is advised not to stay bedridden for longer than 48 hours, and sufferers are encouraged to resume physical activities as soon as possible. This is because prolonged bed rest can weaken the back muscles and delay healing.
In order to lessen acute pain, are drugs available that can decrease inflammation such as analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs. If these are not enough, a doctor can suggest an infiltration - for example, an injection of cortisone - in the affected area. Treatment through manipulations of the column, on the other hand, is quite controversial. Some doctors think that they can make the symptoms worse and lead to complications such as ponytail syndrome.
An operation of the herniated disc is only done as a last resort. It is only recommended to critically ill patients with severe symptoms such as sphincter palsy or loss of skin sensitivity.