The vertebrae (bones that form the spine) are cushioned by small and spongy discs. When these discs are elastic and intact they act as shock absorbers for the spine and maintain spinal flexibility. However, in case of damage to a disc it may break open or even bulge. This condition is medically known as a herniated disc (slipped or ruptured disc).
Herniation may affect each any segment of the spine. Still, the lower back (the lumbar spine) is the most commonly affected. In rare cases disc herniation occurs in the cervical and thoracic part of the spine.
Causes of Herniated Disc
There are several causes of spinal disc herniation. The first one is wearing or tearing of the disc. As people age their discs start to dry out and lose their elasticity. They are not as flexible as they used to be, hence the chance of their rupture or bulging increases. The discs are initially affected by tiny little cracks in the hard outer layer. The gel from the inside of the disc may protrude through these cracks and is responsible for subsequent symptoms and signs of herniation.
Clinical Characteristics of Herniated Disc
In case a herniated disc puts pressure to the nerve roots the person suffers from pain, numbness and weakness of the body areas innervated by the affected nerves. For example, a herniated disc in the lower back may cause numbness in the buttocks and the pain that radiates down the leg. This particular condition is known as sciatica. If bulging disc does not affect nerve roots the person will neither have pain nor other problems.
Diagnosing Herniated Disc
The first thing a doctor does is to investigate a patient's medical history, followed by physical and neurological exams. The final conformation of a herniated disc is achieved by using imaging methods such as MRI or CT scan of the spine.
Treatment for Herniated Disc
All symptoms and signs of a herniated disc usually withdraw within a few weeks or months. Patients are generally recommended to rest if the pain is unbearable. Bed rest is supposed to last for a day or two, never longer. Prolonged lying may cause weakening of the surrounding muscles. In case there is no pain patients are advised to stay active. Some doctors recommend application of heating pads and ice packs. Physical therapy is an essential part of the entire process of rehabilitation and restoration of the lost functions. Intensive pain is alleviated with painkillers and in severe cases, if the symptoms do not withdraw or even become more intensive or the person suffers from serious neurological loss, the condition is treated surgically.