Is this serious?
The doctor decides to send you for some tests once she finds out that you’ve been having lower back and leg pain for the past few months. The results show you have a ruptured disc in your back. What does this mean? Is it fixable? Can you prevent it from happening again?
A ruptured disc is another name for herniated disc, which is when a cushion between the spinal vertebrae has a problem. A spinal disc has a soft, jellylike center (nucleus) inside a more rigid, rubbery exterior (annulus). A herniated disc occurs when some of the inside pushes out through a tear in the surface. This usually puts pressure on the nearby nerve. It can happen in any part of the spine. Herniated discs are typically caused by disc degeneration, which is when your discs become less flexible and more prone to rupture or tearing as you age.
Symptoms of a herniated disc depend on its location. If it’s in your lower back, you’ll feel the most pain in your buttocks, thigh, and calf. Sometimes, you’ll have pain in part of your foot, too. If the herniated disk is in your neck, you’ll have pain in your shoulder and arm. In either case, the pain is often described as sharp or burning, and it might shoot into your arm or leg when you cough, sneeze or move into certain positions. Some individuals with herniated discs will have numbness or tingling in the body part served by the affected nerves. Others also have muscle weakness in those areas. Some lucky people don’t have any symptoms and only learn that they got a herniated disc because it shows up on an X-ray or CT scan.
Certain things can increase your chances of having a herniated disc, such as being overweight, having a job that requires repetitive lifting/pulling/pushing/bending/twisting, have a family history of herniated discs, and smoking. Occasionally, a herniated disc can result in a severe complication where it compresses the entire spinal canal, especially the area where your spinal cord ends. If this happens, it’s a medical emergency because it requires surgery to prevent permanent weakness or paralysis. So, if you notice worsening symptoms, bladder/bowel dysfunction, or saddle anesthesia (progressive loss of sensation in your inner thighs, back of legs, and area around the rectum), seek immediate medical attention.
The primary treatment for herniated discs is to modify activities to avoid movements that cause pain. The other immediate treatment is taking over-the-counter pain medications, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. By following these two actions, most people feel better within a few days or weeks. You can also try heat and cold therapy. Cold therapy helps to reduce the pain, while heat aids in decreasing inflammation. While you should avoid activities that cause you pain, you should also avoid too much bed rest because it can lead to stiff joints and muscles.
If your pain doesn’t go away, your doctor may recommend muscle relaxants or cortisone injections to help get rid of muscle spasms and reduce inflammation. At this point, your doctor will want you to try physical therapy as well. This will help you learn exercises and positions to minimize your pain.
If after six weeks you’re still having poorly controlled pain, numbness/weakness, difficulty standing/walking, or loss of bladder/bowel control, your doctor will suggest surgery. Surgery usually involves removing the protruding portion of the disc. In rare cases, the whole disc might need to be removed. If this is the case, your vertebrae may need to be fused together with a bone graft, which can take months to heal. To make sure your spine is stable during this time, your surgeon will place metal hardware in the spine.
There are a few things that you can do to prevent herniated discs. The first is to get regular exercise because this helps to maintain muscle strength and flexibility. It’s vital to maintain good posture to reduce pressure on your spine and discs. This means keeping your back straight and aligned, especially when sitting for long periods or lifting heavy objects. Maintain a healthy weight, so your back doesn’t become damaged from carrying around extra weight. Avoid smoking.
Herniated discs can be painful, but with the proper treatment, you can become pain-free. If you have any questions or concerns about herniated discs, please speak with your doctor. If you would like more information, please visit the American Association of Neurological Surgeons’ Herniated Disc page at https://www.aans.org/en/Patients/Neurosurgical-Conditions-and-Treatments/Herniated-Disc#:~:text=A%20herniated%20disc%20(also%20called,an%20early%20stage%20of%20degeneration.