by Kimberly Allen, RN
I can’t tell you how many times a person with back pain has told me they have a “slipped disc”. The problem with that is that the discs in your spine are securely fastened to your vertebrae and can not “slip”. However, they can herniate or rupture. In fact herniated discs are one of the most common causes of low back pain in people between 30 and 50 years of age.
The disc’s in your spine are pads that are designed like a jelly donut with a squishy center. These pads cushion and separate the vertebrae in your spine. There are ligaments that surround your vertebrae and discs keeping them in place and assisting with movement. There are 24 vertebral bones in your spine, 7 in the cervical vertebrae, which are in your neck. The thoracic vertebrae are in your mid-back and there are 12 of them, then 5 vertebrae in your lower back also known as the lumbar region. Below the lumbar region is your sacrum and tailbone. The most common area for a herniated disc to occur is in your lumbar area occurring 15 times more often than in the cervical area.
In most cases a herniated disc occurs as a result of the aging process. Like other parts of your body the discs in the spine change as we age. As a person gets older the discs begin to lose their water content and become less flexible. This makes them more prone to rupturing or tearing. However, regardless of age people that are over weight or obese also are at risk for developing a herniated disc because the excess body weight places an increased amount of stress on the discs in your lumbar region in your lower back. People that work in physically demanding jobs also tend to develop herniated discs more often than people with less physically demanding jobs, especially if your job involves heavy lifting or repetitive movements like bending and/or twisting.
The symptoms of a herniated disc depends on where in your spine the herniation occurs. Some people have no symptoms at all while others know immediately that they have ruptured a disc. The symptoms also depend on the size of the herniation. If the herniation is large where the disc tissue bulges out from the spine it presses on the nerves adjacent to that area in your spine it usually causes shooting pain. When the herniation is in your lumbar spine it usually sends shooting pain down the back of your thigh and down your leg. This is called sciatica. If your herniated disc occurs in the cervical region you will usually experience pain in your shoulder and arm. Whether or not your herniated disc is in your lumbar or cervical spine it can cause numbness and tingling in the areas of your body that are served by the nerves that are affected. The nerves leaving your spine also serve the muscles in that area and pressure on any of the nerves can also lead to muscle weakness causing you to stumble or have difficulty lifting or holding objects.
In most cases, herniated discs will resolve with in a few weeks or months using conservative medical management. In other words balancing rest and activity. When the pain is severe rest, however, it’s important to stay active, if you spend too much time resting your muscles will weaken making your recovery longer. Most doctors recommend over the counter pain relievers for the pain and physical therapy. There are some specific exercises that a physical therapist can teach you that will significantly reduce your pain and increase your mobility. A friend of mine had jumped over a small stream once and with in days he couldn’t even stand up, he was crawling to get to the car to go to the doctor. Less than a week after starting the exercises the physical therapist had shown him he was standing and walking and had significantly reduced his pain.
The best way to prevent a herniated disc is to exercise regularly including core-muscle strengthening. Always use proper body mechanics when lifting as well as when twisting and turning. Reducing excess stress on your discs by maintaining a healthy body weight is also crucial to a healthy back.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.