Herniated Discs and Back Pain

In this month’s first blog we discussed those little squishy wonders of your spine, your spinal discs. They allow us to move without our vertebrae scraping against each other. Helpful.

However, when our discs get stressed the wrong way, such as when you awkwardly lift a very heavy object, the pressure on the disc can make the exterior shell, the annulus fibrosis, tear. Now the inner gel, the nucleus pulposus, pushes out through the tear. You have a herniated disc.

Uh oh. Now you’ll likely have some back and leg pain in your future. It is possible that you’ll be one of the lucky few who have a herniated disc but no associated pain from a compressed nerve, but that’s rare. Usually, the herniated disc will begin to place pressure on either a nerve root exiting the spinal cord serving one of your legs or arms or on the spinal cord itself if the herniated portion pushed into the spinal canal.

Dr. Tinley sees many patients who are suffering the effects of a herniated disc, so let’s get into a little more about these damaged discs.

What makes a disc herniate?

There usually isn’t an exact cause when a disc herniates. The annulus becomes more and more brittle as we move into our 30s, making them more prone to herniating. One good thing with the drying out of the discs is that after the age of 50 most people no longer have herniated discs. This is because the inner gel has become so solid that it can’t push out through the outer annulus.

These are typical reasons a disc herniates:

  • Wear and tear — The cause of most herniations is simply gradual wear-and-tear that occurs with our discs, due to their continual use. This is called disc degeneration. As we age and our discs lose more and more of their water content, they become less flexible. This makes them more prone to tearing or rupturing, sometimes from the simplest twisting motion.
  • Injury — It’s easy to assume a disc herniates due to trauma, such as a fall or blow to the back, but this is rare. Disc injury that leads to herniation is more likely to the most seemingly mundane movements. It can happen if a person lifts items using the back muscles rather than the legs. It can happen when combining lifting and twisting at the same time.
  • Combination — The reality is that most herniated discs are a combination of discs becoming less flexible with age and a movement that stressed the disc making it push through the outer shell.

Certain factors can increase your chances of developing a herniated disc:

  • Weight — Excess weight produces more stress on the discs in your lower back.
  • Occupation — Jobs that involve a lot of lifting, pulling, pushing, and bending and twisting have increased chances of herniating discs.
  • Genetics — Some people inherit a tendency for the discs to herniate.

What are the symptoms if I have a herniated disc?

Discs typically herniate in the lumbar spine, the L1-L5 vertebrae. Less frequently, they herniate in the cervical spine, the neck. Common signs you have a herniated disc are:

  • Arm or leg pain — If your herniated disc is in your lower back, the pain will radiate down into your buttocks, thigh, and calk on the side where the disc is pushing on the nerve root. If the disc has herniated in your neck, you’ll have the most pain in your shoulder and arm.
  • Numbness or tingling — Another sign is if you feel numbness or tingling in the area served by the affected nerves. Cervical herniation, for instance, will often lead to tingling or numbness in the fingers.
  • Weakness — As the herniated disc compresses the nerves, this will gradually weaken the muscles served by those nerves. This can impact balance, fine motor skills such as grasping items, and other functions.

Now you know what could be behind that chronic back pain or even the pain working its way down into your leg, a herniated disc.

If you have signs of a disc herniation and corresponding pain, please give Dr. Tinley a call at DFW Center for Spinal Disorders, (817) 916-4685, and let’s see how we can help.

Posted in: Herniated Disc

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