Talking and listening about herniated discs can be quite challenging. Many of us have a big fear towards developing back problems associated with disc issues. That is totally understandable as you usually hear only the worst things associated with herniated discs.
In the end, you are left wondering clueless. This post will give you the answers that you are looking for.
First and foremost let’s talk about what discs in the spine are and what a herniated disc is.
You can think about discs as a cushion for our spinal bones called vertebrae. They sit between vertebrae and absorb the shock and pressure caused by our daily activities.
A spinal disc consists of two parts called nucleus and annulus. Nucleus is a soft almost liquid part centered in the middle of the dics. Nucleus is surrounded/ encased by the annulus which is a harder outer part made of cartilage fibers.
The wear and tear of life or specific repetitive actions can cause the disc to bulge or rupture. This occurs because of the damage on the annulus which leads to the nucleus pushing through the harder outer wall of the disc.
A herniated disc may be located in different parts of the spine, leading to different kinds of symptoms. Herniated discs are most common in the lower, lumbar, back and least in the middle, thoracic, back.
It is important to mention that herniated disc occurs and is present in a major part of a population. I understand that reading the previous paragraph may sound concerning.
But what if I told you that almost 80% of all people live with a herniated disc or disc deterioration. Even you can have it now without experiencing any symptoms or negative effects on your life.
So take a deep breath. Everything is not always black and white, especially when it comes to the human body.
Never forget that every human body and every mind is different.
As mentioned earlier symptoms are different depending on where the herniated disc on your back is. This is mostly due to its effects on the nerves.
All nerves in our body originate from our spinal cord. They branch out like tree roots in our body, regulating different parts of it.
If the starting point in one root is affected, the rest of it may experience symptoms. That is why herniated discs usually affect one part and one side of the body.
The following are the symptoms that you may experience:
Pain In Arm or Leg
Depending on where the affected disc is located there is where pain will follow. When the disc in the lower back is affected you usually experience pain in the same area. In some cases, you can notice pain in the buttocks, thigh, calf, and even foot. The pain will start from the back and follow down the leg.
If the pain you experience is solely in your thigh, calf, or foot, the chances are small that it is caused by a herniated disc.
Similar can be said for the upper body. If the disc in your upper, cervical, spine are affected you will feel pain in your neck. The pain can follow down to your shoulder, arm and even hand.
In most cases the pain that you experience is described as sharp, stabbing and burning. It usually is provoked and increased when bending and turning, both neck and back.
Numbness or Tingling
Feeling numbness or tingling feeling in the part of your body is common when you suffer from herniated disc. It can be followed with pain in the affected region of the spine, but not mandatory. This usually occurs because the bulging or ruptured disc is putting pressure on the nerves.
The weakness that you experience caused by a herniated disc is due to the effects it has on the nerves. As above mentioned the pressure that is put on the nerves causes them to become weaker.
This means that they let through less “information” or electric signals causing muscles to experience weakness. The muscle fibers per se are not damaged in any kind of way.
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc is mostly caused by life’s wear and tear. This occurs as we age. Disc gradually degenerates making it stiffer and less flexible.
A person does not have to be old for a disc to become brittle and less flexible.
If you have demanding hand labor consisting of heavy lifting or turning and bending you are at risk for developing herniated discs. The repetitive stress causes the outer layer of a disc to wear out faster. That is why even a minor twisting or turning motion can cause a disc to bulge or rupture.
In some cases, a herniated disc can be a cause of trauma on the body. Although this is not a common occurrence.
When To Visit a Doctor?
Even if in most cases a herniated disc is nothing to be extremely worried about, there are a few symptoms that you should be out for. The following symptoms often occur as the spinal cord or the end of the spinal cord are noticeably affected.
If you do experience these symptoms, you should visit your doctor as soon as possible, or even emergency care.
- If the pain does not decrease or subside, yet increases to the point where it hinders your daily life. This goes for numbness and the sensation of weakness as well.
- A certain syndrome called cauda equina affects the nerve endings of the spinal cord that looks like a horsetail. When this area is affected you can notice dysfunction of your bladder or bowel. This leads to difficulty urinating or incontinence even with a full bladder.
- You can even experience a loss of sensation in the specific area of your legs. Those areas are around the rectum, inner thighs, and back of your legs. This loss of sensation is called saddle anesthesia.
You should seek medical attention as soon as possible because these symptoms can lead to total loss of sensation in your legs and even paralysis.
How To Treat Herniated Disc?
For an effective treatment, you need to get diagnosed first. Many of you will probably get an MRI from a doctor as people tend to like actually seeing the herniated disc.
Even if this is an effective way for diagnosing the extent of deterioration of your disc, you probably will have to see a physical therapist. This is essential as physical therapists are body experts and can provide you with an actual rehabilitation plan.
It is important to mention that physical therapists educate as well. It is normal to be fearful and experience anxiety. That is why you should feel free to ask any questions that you may have.
Physical therapists give a thorough assessment of your body and how it is affected by herniated discs.
Your spine’s mobility will be examined first, as well as which movements are painful. Later the strength, sensation, and reflexes of your legs or arms will be examined.
You will be asked to perform certain movements that will trigger your pain or tingling sensation. It is quite common for you to be sore and even have an increase in pain after assessment with a PT.
Do not be worried as this happens due to the nature of the examination. Your pain will calm down after some rest.
Assessing all of those aspects provides an accurate image for your therapists of which disc is herniated and which nerves are affected. Furthermore, this is essential as the rehabilitation plan needs to get accustomed specifically to your needs and abilities.
Strength, Stability & Flexibility
As the first evaluation contains an assessment of painful movements, you will not be asked to perform them at the beginning of rehabilitation.
First and foremost you will work on moving the affected area in pain-free motion.
As the inflammation causes pain, it as well causes swelling which is a build-up of certain substances. The swelling and inflammation need to decrease as it allows the flow of the “healing” substances to the area. As the inflammation subsides the pain will do so as well allowing for increasing of performed motion in the spine.
You will be asked to perform stabilization and strength exercises.
Increasing stability in the area will decrease the amount of unnecessary movement in the spine that causes wear and tear. It as well allows moving more safely in the demanding motions.
Strength exercises will at first be performed at the surrounding joints and muscles. In practice, this means that you will be strengthening your legs and backside first.
The increase of strength in the surrounding muscles will lower the load that your spine has to take.
After you experience an increase in stability and upper or lower body strength you will be doing actual strength work on your affected area of the spine.
As the muscles of the affected area are getting stronger you will gently start exploring the previously painful movements.
Pain relief techniques
During the rehabilitation period, your physical therapist may perform manual therapy.
Manual therapy mostly focuses on decreasing your muscle spasm and tension. It provides a good ground for further training as it will increase your flexibility and decrease pain.
You will even be provided with traction techniques.
Traction works by releasing tension on your nerves and decreasing pain, during short periods of time. When it comes to herniated discs in the lower back traction can be done easily. It is as simple as hanging with arms on the pull-up bar or at home bending on the kitchen counter.
Having herniated disc or disc degeneration is a common occurrence in the human body. You may experience symptoms such as pain, numbness, and weakness.
All of these symptoms are treatable with an individual rehabilitation plan assigned by your physical therapist.
If the pain does not subside yet increases, you experience bladder problems or saddle anesthesia, you should seek medical care as soon as possible.