FAQ’s on Herniated Disc
What are Herniated Discs and Bulging Discs?
A disc refers to a cushion of cartilage separating the vertebrae in the spine. A bulging disc is exactly what it sounds like: it is a disc of cartilage that bulges outside of the space that it is intended to occupy. It may resemble a lopsided hamburger or a burger that’s too big for its bun. Bulging discs are actually fairly common and are often considered a normal part of the aging process. Not every bulging disc will result in symptoms for the patient, some patients may not know they have a complication with their disc unless they experience pain.
A herniated disc is a different situation entirely, and can be a painful problem. The spinal disc is composed of cartilage and consists of two layers. The outer layer is like a sturdy cartilage shell, while the inner layer is softer and more flexible. A herniated disc occurs when the outer shell gets cracked, and the softer layer leaks through. This has led to herniated discs also being referred to as ruptured discs.
What causes a Herniated or Bulging disc?
People may be susceptible to herniated discs if they are middle-aged or overweight, or if they have physically demanding jobs that require repetitive lifting, pushing, or pulling. Carrying weight while bending and twisting may also increase someone’s risk of a herniated disc. Herniation is usually the result of stress over time, resulting in a form of wear and tear called disc degeneration.
An older disc has a thinner outer layer, so it will crack or rupture more easily under stress or strain. Discs also lose some of their water content with age, meaning that an older disc is easier to tear or rupture, as it has become less flexible. The stress that causes herniation usually happens over time. A herniated disc may be caused by an accidental fall or a physical injury.
How is a Herniated or Bulging disc diagnosed?
People usually discover they have a bulging disc after an MRI, as not every bulging disc will result in the presence of symptoms for the patients. Bulging discs are a normal part of the human aging process. Herniated discs may also be discovered for the first time by an MRI because the patient experienced no symptoms; but are more commonly discovered, as herniated discs can be the source of considerable pain.
For many patients, the disc itself does not hurt. The damaged disc may however affect the surrounding nerves. This is why a herniated disc is also referred to as a slipped disc. The herniated portion of the disc “slips” into the nerves, causing pain in the body parts the nerves serve. Similar to this, a bulging disc may extend beyond the normal space it occupies and potentially compress one or more spinal nerves. If the disc is in the lower back, then the leg and buttocks will be affected. If the disc is in the neck, then the shoulder and arm will be affected. Patients may also experience numbness or tingling, with a chance of muscle weakness occurring if a nerve is compressed.
What are the available treatments for a Herniated or Bulging disc?
Common treatments of damaged discs include pain management and physical therapy. Taking appropriate medications (depending on the severity of pain) and performing a simple regimen of exercises, along with hot or cold packs, can often resolve the problem of a herniated disc within a month or two without the need for surgery. This is because the protruding portion of the disc can shrink over time. Occasionally, more aggressive treatments are required, which may include the use of muscle relaxers, cortisone injections, electrical stimulation, short-term bracing, or even traction devices.
Surgical treatment for a Herniated or Bulging disc
Only a few patients require surgery to treat a herniated disc. Surgery may be required if a disc fragment dislodges into the spinal canal or if the patient has significant difficulty walking or standing. Surgery may be recommended if previous treatment methods, including more aggressive non-surgical methods, have not resulted in substantial improvements after 6 to 8 weeks. The success and outcome of surgery often depend on the type of surgery performed and the specific circumstances of the patient.
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