What Is a Herniated Disc?

Picture of a woman holding her lower back in pain.

Before explaining what disc herniation involves, it may be helpful to briefly discuss spinal anatomy. The spine is composed of numerous bones (vertebrae) that are stacked on top of one another, separated by soft, cushion-like discs. These discs help to absorb shocks, support spinal mobility, and hold the vertebrae together.

In some instances, a disc’s tough, rubbery shell (the annulus) will develop a tear, allowing the soft, jelly-like material inside (the nucleus) to leak out into the space surrounding the disc. When this happens, it’s referred to as a herniated disc. Although herniated discs can occur in any part of the spine, they’re most likely to develop within the lower back.

Herniated Disc Causes

While a sudden traumatic injury can sometimes cause a disc to herniate, this condition most often results from age-related disc degeneration. As someone grows older, their spinal discs gradually lose flexibility and become more susceptible to rupturing. 

Herniated Disc Risk Factors

The following risk factors can increase the likelihood of developing a herniated disc:

  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Sitting for extended periods of time, especially in a car
  • Working a physically demanding job that requires repetitive lifting, bending, twisting, pushing, or pulling motions

It’s important to remember that having any of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that someone will develop a herniated disc—it simply means that they’ll be more likely to experience this condition. Additionally, it’s possible for someone to develop a herniated disc without having any of the risk factors listed above.

Herniated Disc Symptoms

In many cases, herniated discs don’t produce any noticeable symptoms. When symptoms do develop, they’ll typically vary depending on where the herniated disc is located within the spine. For example, a herniated disc in the neck may produce pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness within the neck, shoulders, and arms. Conversely, a herniated disc in the lower back will be more likely to cause symptoms in the lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet.

In rare cases, disc herniation can lead to cauda equina syndrome if the nerves at the lower end of the spinal cord become compressed. When this happens, it can cause a loss of sensation in the lower extremities as well as bladder and/or bowel dysfunction. Cauda equina syndrome often requires emergency treatment in order to prevent permanent weakness or even paralysis.

Herniated Disc Treatment

Herniated discs can often be treated using conservative methods, which might include taking pain medication, undergoing corticosteroid injections, attending physical therapy, and making certain lifestyle changes. If these techniques fail to provide relief, surgery may become necessary. Herniated disc surgery typically involves removing the portion of the disc that’s protruding, but in rare cases may require removing the entire disc and either fusing the adjacent vertebrae or implanting an artificial disc.

The Team to Choose for Herniated Disc Treatment

If you’re concerned that you might have a herniated disc and you’re in Durham, NC, or the surrounding area, you can turn to the experienced practitioners at North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic. We’ve been assisting patients with all of their orthopedic needs since 2003, and our physicians have all completed fellowship training, with many specializing in conditions affecting the spine. Contact us today to schedule a consultation at a date and time that works for you.