What is a herniated disc?
The main job of the vertebrae is to protect the spinal cord. In between each vertebra is a spongy tissue, or disc, which acts as a shock absorber and allows for slight movement of the spine. Over time, intervertebral discs begin to break down and change shape. When part of the disc bulges out and presses on the spinal nerve, the condition is known as a bulging disc. Herniated discs occur when the soft inner portion of the disc protrudes through a hole or crack in the outer ring. Herniated discs are commonly referred to as slipped discs. All bulging discs have the potential to become a herniated disc.
Herniated discs can be caused by age-related degeneration or certain twisting motions. Falling can also cause herniated discs. People with physically demanding jobs or athletes are at a higher risk for herniated discs. Obesity, weak muscles, and low activity levels can also increase the risk.
Symptoms of a herniated disc include pain and numbness, often isolated to one side of the body, unexplained muscle weakness, pain during specific movements, and tingling or burning sensation around the disc. Herniated discs can occur anywhere along the spine. The lumbar spine, or lower back, is the most common location of a herniated disc.
What are the treatment options?
Treatment for herniated discs varies depending on the individual. Many treatment plans include some form of physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in the back. Over-the-counter pain medications and avoiding strenuous activity and heavy lifting can help relieve symptoms. Low-impact activity, such as walking, can prevent muscle weakness. Refraining from any physical activity may be tempting, but mild to moderate exercise can improve symptoms.
When is surgery needed?
Surgery is needed if symptoms persist for more than 6 weeks or profoundly impact the patient’s daily life. The surgeon will remove all or only a portion of the protruding disc. The removal of a portion is called a microdiscectomy. During a microdiscectomy, the surgeon makes a small 1-1.5-inch incision to remove the damaged tissue. The surgeon may also remove a small piece of the vertebrae to help relieve the pressure on the spinal nerve. The patient is typically discharged the same day with a set of instructions on which movements to avoid. Patients should avoid heavy lifting, defined as anything over 5 lbs, and exercise for 2-4 weeks. Full recovery takes approximately 6 weeks. Pain associated with the pressure should stop immediately after surgery.
Is a microdiscectomy needed?
Herniated discs press on the spinal nerve and can completely disrupt daily life. Treatment typically involves physical therapy, pain medication, and surgery. The microdiscectomy is a minimally invasive surgery and is successful at relieving pressure associated with herniated discs. Recovery time is short and involves a slow reintroduction back into physical activities. People experiencing herniated disc symptoms should speak with a spine specialist to learn more about treatment options.