Four out of five adults will experience some form of back pain in their lifetime. Some of the worst of this pain comes from those suffering from a herniated disc.
While herniated disc causes vary, some people are at a higher risk of suffering from one of the various types of herniated discs than others. Left untreated, the pain is unlikely to resolve. Understanding the herniated disc symptoms can help you act quickly and avoid prolonging your pain.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
To understand, 'what is a herniated disc,' you have to first understand what a disc is. Your spine consists of a stack of bones called vertebrae.
Between these vertebrae are small cushion-like discs. These discs absorb shock and keep the spine stable. Without these protective layers, you would experience pinched nerves, stressed joints, and painful movements.
A herniation is when one of these discs becomes damaged and ruptures. The soft material on the inside of the disc oozes out. This not only reduces the cushion between your vertebrae but can also put pressure on nerves.
Herniated Disc Causes
There are 3 main herniated disc causes including gradual degeneration, injury, or a combination of the two. Gradual degeneration occurs when the discs have to work hard to do their job. The harder they have to work, the quicker they wear out.
Herniated discs result from injury when too much pressure is put on the discs. For example, a jerking motion from a car accident or lifting incorrectly can put a lot of strain on your spine, causing herniated discs.
If your discs are in bad shape due to gradual degeneration, then you are at an increased risk of herniated discs from injury. This is because the discs are already vulnerable.
Certain risk factors can increase your chance of experiencing a herniated disc. Whether a herniated disc occurs because of an injury or wear and tear, these risk factors put more pressure on your spine.
Some of these factors are outside of your control but not all. The longer these controllable factors are an issue, the higher your risk of herniated discs becomes.
Weight is a common problem leading to different herniated disc causes. Excess weight and obesity can lead to weakened back muscles. When these muscles are weak, it's harder for the spine to retain its shape and carry weight.
Because of this, your spine and discs face a higher rate of compression and curvature. The combination of increased pressure, new vertebrae angles, and weakened muscles puts you at a greater risk of a herniated disc.
Genetics is another risk factor when it comes to developing herniated discs, especially for people with a family history of lumbar degenerative disc disease. This means your genes affect how quickly your discs wear down over time.
However, genes aren't a deciding factor as to whether you'll experience issues with herniated discs. They play a role, but how you take care of yourself and reduce other risk factors can contribute to ensuring a healthy spine.
Smoking can increase your risk of lumbar degenerative disc disease. Nicotine can lead to your spinal discs drying out and becoming more rigid. This occurs because nicotine deprives your spine of certain nutrients that are vital to spinal health.
Exposure to carbon monoxide from smoking also steals nutrients from your body. As your body is exposed to carbon monoxide, it can't absorb the nutrients it needs from your blood.
An occupation that requires physical exertion can increase your risk of experiencing a herniated disc. Jobs that require heavy lifting or frequent bending and twisting are especially risky.
Failing to lift a heavy object with your legs puts strain on other parts of your body such as your spine. Even if you don't immediately herniate a disc, repeated activities can wear down your discs.
Herniated Disc Symptoms
Herniated disc symptoms develop in various parts of the body depending on the location of the herniated disc. Lower back herniations are the most common but any disc in the spine can experience herniation.
The way a herniated disc presses against the nerves in your spine affects how your body reacts to it. It tends to affect only half of your body.
Muscles weakness is one of the most common herniated disc symptoms. It mostly affects muscles connected to compressed nerves. This weakness can worsen over time.
Even if you're not experiencing pain, it's important to carefully monitor muscle weakness. In severe cases, you may start noticing muscle atrophy (a loss of muscle mass).
Arm or Leg Pain
One of the worst herniated disc symptoms is pain in the arms or legs. Pain from a herniated disc can occur in several ways. Some patients experience pain ongoing, but other patients may experience pain only as a result of certain movements.
The way the herniation presses against the nerve can affect the way the pain feels. For example, some people may experience sharp pain when a particular joint is touched while others may experience shooting pain when straightening a limb.
Numbness or Tingling
Numbness and tingling are often experienced with pinched nerves. These symptoms can also be intermittent or constant and can worsen if left untreated.
If this numbness leads to incontinence issues, you should seek emergency treatment immediately. While uncommon, this can lead to permanent paralysis of the lower limbs.
Types of Herniated Discs
There are three main types of herniated discs: contained herniation, non-contained herniation, and sequestered herniation. Each type has a different level of severity which affects how quickly they are diagnosed and treated.
Contained Herniation (Protrusion)
A contained herniation, which is also called a protrusion or bulging disc, is the result of compression between the vertebrae. This compression causes the disc to protrude outward and compress the nerves around it.
This type of herniation is the most likely to go unnoticed and untreated. Contained herniated disc symptoms are often associated with mild pain or discomfort.
Non-Contained Herniation (Disc Extrusion)
A non-contained herniation, or disc extrusion, occurs when the outer layer of the disc breaks apart. The soft material inside of the disc leaks out into the spinal canal. This can happen as a result of a sudden injury or the worsening of a contained herniation.
Severe pain, numbness, and tingling are common symptoms of this type of herniation. They force the most pressure on the nerves surrounding the spine.
One of the potential consequences of not treating a non-contained herniation is a sequestered herniation. The exposed fragment of the disc can detach from the damaged disc and move to different areas of the spine.
This type of herniation is rare, but it can have more acute symptoms than other types. You are also more likely to experience bowel or bladder incontinence with this type of herniation.
How to Diagnose a Herniated Disc
To diagnose a herniated disc, you need to see a doctor or surgeon. Knowing when to schedule an appointment can help you get the treatment you need as soon as possible.
If you're experiencing new back pain or pain that may be related to a back injury, consider trying conservative treatments first. This includes resting and applying ice or heat.
However, if your pain is affecting your ability to sleep, work, or enjoy your life, then you shouldn't wait to seek medical attention.
Once you've scheduled an appointment with your doctor or surgeon, there are a few tests they can recommend to diagnose the cause of discomfort. Your doctor may recommend multiple tests depending on your symptoms.
X-rays are often the first attempt at diagnosing back-related injuries. However, it's important to note that a disc herniation doesn't show on a traditional x-ray.
An x-ray helps rule out any problems with the vertebrae of your spine. This includes fractures and signs of arthritis.
Computed Tomography Scan (CT/CAT scan)
A computed tomography scan also called a CT or CAT scan, helps your doctor see the shape and size of the spinal canal. The image produced by a CT scan can help doctors see large disc herniations. However, it might miss smaller ones.
CT Scan with Myelogram
A CT scan with a myelogram helps show any pressure on the spinal cord. Before an x-ray or CT scan, the medical team injects a special dye into the spinal canal. While it shows compression, it doesn't necessarily identify the reason for the compression.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
Magnetic resonance imaging is one of the most effective methods of diagnosing a herniated disc. Unlike an x-ray or a CT scan, an MRI can show nerve roots and the spinal cord.
This technology produces a 3D image with the use of magnets. It makes it easier to spot small herniations, tumours, and more. To learn more about MRI's, be sure to visit our article on the topic.
Herniated Disc Treatment
Once you've been diagnosed with a herniated disc, your doctor will discuss your options for herniated disc treatment. This typically falls into one of two categories depending on your diagnosis: surgical treatments or non-surgical treatments.
Doctors often recommend trying a non-surgical herniated disc treatment before jumping into surgery. Surgery may be a last resort.
How to Heal a Herniated Disc Quickly
To heal a herniated disc quickly, you have to be dedicated to working with your medical team. This involves taking prescribed pain medications, attending prescribed treatments, and scheduling follow-up visits.
However, it's important to note that the best course of treatment may not always be the fastest course of treatment.
A non-surgical herniated disc treatment typically involves some combination of medication and physical therapy. For mild to moderate pain, doctors start by prescribing a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) or a steroid injection.
Before starting physical therapy or visiting a chiropractor, you'll likely start with light activities that don't cause pain to keep you active. Bed rest can cause your body to become stiff and painful. Eventually, you'll be directed to a physical therapist for an evaluation and treatment plan.
The type of surgery you might undergo for a herniated disc depends on the type and location of the herniation. There are a few different approaches that can relieve pain.
- The protruding part of the disc is removed to relieve pressure
- The entire disc is removed and replaced with an artificial disc
- A portion of the spine is permanently fused to immobilize it
Lumbar spine surgery helps relieve sciatica and leg pain caused by a herniation on the lower portion of the spine. The surgeon makes a small incision down the center of the back. They remove a portion of the lamina and move the muscle aside to gain access.
Cervical spine surgery helps relieve pain caused by a herniation of a disc in the upper portion of the spine. The incision is either made from the front or back of the neck depending on the location of the herniation.
Do Provincial Health Care Plans Cover the Cost of Herniated Disc Treatment?
The cost associated with herniated disc treatment and diagnosis is overwhelming for many patients and they require the assistance of a health care plan.
While provincial health care plans may cover some herniated disc treatments, they may not cover all of them. Investing in supplemental insurance can help avoid having to pay out-of-pocket for treatments.
Seeking Help for Your Herniated Disc
Insurdinary cares about your health and wellness. We understand that getting the medical help you need can come at a premium price. That's why we help you compare different insurance services so you can find the right coverage for your medical needs.
Get a quote today for the supplemental coverage you need for your herniated disc treatment.
If you think you may be suffering from a herniated disc, please seek the attention of a doctor.
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