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Disc Herniation: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

By James M. Leipzig, M.D., F.A.C.S. on
Man suffering from back pain.

The discs in your spine act as shock absorbers between vertebrae – protecting and cushioning the spine from everyday strain, and help to minimize the impact of movement on the spinal column. Discs are designed with a hard outer layer known as the annulus and soft central component, or nucleus. As the disc degenerates due to age or injury, the outer layer may tear or become weak, causing the nucleus to rupture. The ruptured or herniated disc places more pressure on nerves and can cause pain or discomfort.

What causes a herniated disc?

Herniated discs develop due to pressure. Poor posture, injury, obesity, natural aging and degeneration all contribute to disc pressure. The most common causes of herniated discs are:

  • Degenerative Disc Disease
    Degenerative disc disease is a condition where discs lose volume over time and are unable to absorb shock or flex. These compromised discs are more likely to rupture.
  • Accident or Sudden Trauma
    Discs can unexpectedly herniate when unbearable pressure is forced upon the spine in the event of an accident.
  • Heavy Lifting
    Incorrectly lifting or bending with a heavy load can place excess stress on discs that can over time cause a rupture.

Herniated Disc Symptoms

A disc herniation is most likely to occur in the cervical and lumbar spine due to their highly flexible nature and significant body weight support. Exact symptoms vary depending, on where the rupture occurs in the spine, and some patients may not display symptoms at all. Localized pain near the ruptured disc may occur and if the herniated disc begins to strain a nerve or the spinal cord, pain, tingling and numbness can extend to the neck and lower extremities.

Treatment for Disc Herniation

Depending on the location and severity of a herniated disc, treatment includes physical therapy, medication (pain, muscle-relaxant or anti-inflammatories), cortisone injections and surgical procedures. By strengthening your back and core, some patients are able to relieve strain and inflammation associated with a ruptured disc through physical therapy. With simple lifestyle changes, like getting plenty of rest, moderate exercise and avoiding heavy lifting, some cases resolve themselves over time. If lifestyle adjustments and conservative treatments don’t provide relief, patients should consider minimally invasive spine surgery. MISS patients typically have a significantly shorter hospital stay and can often have their surgery performed on an outpatient basis. Though each experience is unique to the patient, recovery time from MISS is usually half of what it is for open surgery.

Dr. Leipzig is a Virginia spine surgeon with over two decades of experience and specializes in procedures including minimally invasive spine surgery and disc arthroplasty. Contact Virginia Spine Care today.

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"I enjoy interacting with patients and helping them understand their condition and treatment options. Spine problems and spinal surgery can be stressful. It’s an honor to be able to treat patients and guide them toward recovery."
James Leipzig, M.D., F.A.C.S.