If you have unexplained pain, weakness, or numbness in one of your arms or legs, then a herniated disc might be the cause. Although fairly common, most people don’t understand what a herniated disc is and why it might be the root cause of their pain. Let’s look at what a herniated disc is and how to best treat it.
What is a Herniated Disc?
The human spine is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between each of these vertebrae are soft discs that have a jelly-like center. These discs cushion your vertebrae and keep them in place.
As we age, the discs in the spine may degenerate and become less flexible. Everyday twisting or bending may cause the soft center of the disc to push through the exterior of the disc, which results in a bulging of the disc, or a herniation. The herniation or bulge can put pressure on a nearby nerve, so that will cause pain or numbness somewhere in your body, usually in an arm or leg on one side of your body.
What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?
Symptoms of a herniated disc depend on what part of the spine the herniation has occurred. If your herniated disk is in your lower back, you'll typically feel the most pain in your buttocks, thigh, and calf. If your herniated disk is in your neck, you'll typically feel the most pain in your arm and shoulder. You may feel a sharp increase in pain levels when you sneeze, cough, or make sudden movements.
Other symptoms of a herniated disc include muscle numbness or weakness, which make it difficult to hold objects, walk, or lift heavy items.
How is a Herniated Disc Diagnosed?
If you think you might have a herniated disc, then make an appointment with a pain specialist who will give you a complete physical exam. During the exam your doctor will check for areas of swelling or tenderness. He’ll also ask you to bend and stretch different parts of your body so he can see how well you’re moving and pinpoint the exact location of the pain.
Your doctor will also test your reflexes, muscle strength, responsiveness to touch, and your ability to walk. In most cases, your doctor will be able to diagnose a herniated disc from just the physical exam and give you a treatment plan.
However, there may be times when additional testing is needed so your doctor may send you for any of the following:
- Imaging tests such as an X-ray, a CT scan, MRI, Myelogram. Not all imaging tests will be needed, but your doctor will choose what’s most appropriate for an accurate diagnosis.
- A nerve conduction study, which can detect nerve damage by measuring how well electrical impulses are moving along nerve tissue to your muscles.
- An electromyography (EMG), which evaluates the electrical activity of your muscles when they contract and when they’re at rest. This test can also help pinpoint the location of nerve damage.
What are the Treatments for a Herniated Disc?
Fortunately, conservative treatments are effective for most people with herniated discs. These are the treatments doctors will prescribe most often:
- Over-the-counter pain medications. If your pain is mild to moderate, your doctor might recommend acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium.
- Physical therapy. The goal of physical therapy is to strengthen back and stomach muscles, which will ease the pressure on your back and reduce pain.
- Steroid injections. Your doctor might recommend a corticosteroid that can be injected into the area around the spinal nerves to reduce swelling and pain.
- Muscle relaxers. Your doctor may prescribe muscle relaxers if you have muscle spasms.
Surgery to remove pieces of the disc that are damaged may be considered as a last resort if no other treatment options have worked.
How Can I Decrease My Risk of Getting a Herniated Disc?
To help prevent a herniated disk, do the following:
- Exercise. Strengthening your core muscles will help stabilize and support your spine.
- Maintain good posture. Keep your back straight and aligned, particularly when sitting for long periods.
- Lift heavy objects properly. Bend at the knees when lifting heavy objects off the ground. Make sure that your legs — not your back — do most of the work.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Carrying excess body weight puts more pressure on the spine and disks, making them more susceptible to herniation.
- Avoid tobacco. If you smoke, then quit. It’s thought that smoking lessens the oxygen supply to the disk, causing it to break down more quickly.
If you’re experiencing pain that’s interfering with your quality of life, then make an appointment to see a pain specialist such as Dr. Mingi Choi of Somerset Orthopedic & Sports Medicine. Dr. Choi has more than 25 years of experience successfully diagnosing and treating those who suffer from chronic pain. He is board-certified by the American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and a Fellow of American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.