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What is a Spinal Disc Herniation?

Article Details
  • Written By: Jacquelyn Gilchrist
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 15 November 2018
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2018
    Conjecture Corporation
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The spine is composed of vertebrae, or bones, that are separated by discs. A spinal disc herniation is a condition in which the disc slips from its proper position. It may occur with part or all of the disc. This condition is also sometimes called a ruptured disc.

Spinal discs serve as cushions for the spinal column. They are soft and elastic, and as they lose elasticity, the discs become more susceptible to slippage. When a spinal disc herniation occurs, the improper positioning often places pressure on nearby nerves.

A spinal disc herniation may occur due to sudden trauma or injury to the area. It also occurs due to gradual degeneration or overuse. Patients may also sustain this injury simply from lifting a heavy object while twisting the back.

Some risk factors may render a patient more susceptible to suffering a spinal disc herniation. Patients who are over the age of 35 are more likely to experience degeneration, particularly due to a loss of elasticity. Excess body weight can place more stress on the discs. Smoking is also a risk factor, as it deprives the body of sufficient oxygen and nutrients. People who work in physically-demanding careers are also at a higher risk.

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A herniated disc does not always cause symptoms. Sometimes the condition, however, can cause intense pain. Patients may also experience weakness and numbness along one leg, in the lower back, or in the upper torso. Some patients may have mobility problems because of intense pain. Other patients may have trouble clenching one fist, standing on one foot, or lifting a leg or an arm.

Initial treatment for a spinal disc herniation involves rest. A doctor may prescribe medication for the pain, as well as an anti-inflammatory drug. More rarely, steroid injections may be used to help alleviate pain and swelling. Some patients may benefit from muscle relaxants, particularly those experiencing back spasms.

In addition to medications, patients may be advised to apply a cold pack to the area for the first few days. Following this, they may apply a heating pad to ease the pain. A doctor may recommend that the patient see a physical therapist. Physical therapists can provide patients with exercises and positions to use to relieve discomfort.

If conservative treatment methods fail to provide sufficient relief after about six weeks, patients may consider surgery. Surgery may also be an option for patients with severe mobility problems. To treat a spinal disc herniation, the surgeon will remove small portions of bone and tissue that compress nearby nerves. The average recovery time for this procedure is about two to six weeks.

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