When the discs in your back are healthy they act as shock absorbers for the spine, but when they become damaged it can lead to symptoms of pain, muscle weakness or numbness if they start to compress the nerves or spinal cord in your spine.
Your spine consists of 33 individual vertebrae; these vertebrae help to support the weight of your body and allow you to stand upright, bend and twist your back, and protect the spinal cord from damage. Sandwiched between each of these vertebrae is a small disc. These discs keep the vertebrae from rubbing together and help cushion the spine. They are made up of a tough outer shell and a softer gel like center.
These discs can become damaged in a number of ways. They can start to dry out, they can bulge out into the spinal canal, or they can rupture into the spinal canal. All of these injuries could lead to various symptoms that would make it harder for you to go about your daily activities.
What happens when you have a herniated disc is a portion of the disc pushes out of its normal space and into the spinal canal. When this happens it is possible for your nerves or spinal cord to become pinched or compressed. While there is a small amount of extra space in the spinal canal, if enough disc material where to bulge out you would begin to have symptoms of pain, weakness and numbness. It is possible to have a herniated disc and no symptoms at all; there have been many times where these herniated discs are only found during other diagnostic tests.
Herniated Disc Causes
Age – Oftentimes a herniated disc occurs as a result of aging. The older we get the more worn out the structures in our spine become. Your discs start to lose fluid and become less flexible and more prone to damage. Once the degenerative spine cascade begins a disc herniation can happen by just bending or twisting the back.
Obesity – Your spine is there to help provide support for your body, because of this the heavier you are the more stress you place on your back. If your tendons, ligaments or muscles cannot do their job properly due to this added load it could lead to a disc herniation.
Hereditary disposition – If anyone in your immediate family has or had a herniated disc in the past, you are at an increased risk of developing one yourself.
Trauma – An injury to the back, such as a fall or car accident can lead to a herniated disc.
Smoking – If you are a smoker the toxins in cigarettes can lead to a decrease in the amount of fluid in your discs. This makes the discs no longer as flexible and cushiony as they used to be, leading to a possible rupture or disc herniation.
Herniated Disc Symptoms
What types of herniated disc symptoms you experience will depend on where your disc problem is located. There are three areas in your spine where a disc can herniated, the cervical (neck), the thoracic (middle back) and the lumbar (lower back).
Cervical Herniated Disc Symptoms
– A dull or sharp pain that starts in your neck.
– Pain that radiates into your shoulders and arms.
– Muscle spasms or cramping.
– Weakness or numbness in your arms and hand
Thoracic Herniated Disc Symptoms
– Upper back pain.
– A sharp burning pain in the arms accompanied with numbness
– Pain that gets worse if you where to sneeze or cough
– Pain that radiates around the rib cage and into the belly.
– Weakness or numbness in the lower extremities.
– Difficulty with balance and walking.
– Heart palpitations.
– Loss of bowel or bladder functions; this is a very serious symptom. If you are having any problems with your bodily functions you should seek immediate medical attention.
Lumbar Herniated Disc Symptoms
– Pain that radiates down the legs
– A shooting or stabbing pain that is felt in the legs
– Pain that radiates into the groin or thigh area
– Numbness or tingling in the lower extremities
– Muscle weakness in the lower extremities
– Pain that decreases with short walks and increases if there is extended amounts of sitting or longer walks.
It is possible to have a herniated disc with no symptoms. If there is no compression of the nerves or spinal cord there would be no pain or numbness.
If you are experiencing these symptoms you should consult with your doctor so they can correctly diagnose your condition. The key to a successful treatment is an accurate diagnosis.
To do this your doctor would review your medical history and perform a full physical examination as well as a few tests that can be done in their office. If these tests do not conclusively diagnosis your condition as a herniated disc your doctor may order additional diagnostic tests be performed.
The following tests can be used to rule out other conditions or to see what nerves are being impinged.
MRI scans (magnetic resonance imaging)
This test would use strong magnetic fields and radio waves to create highly detailed images of your muscles, joints and nerves. This can help to confirm the location of your herniated disc and where your nerves or spinal cord are being compressed.
CT scans (computerized tomography)
Very similar to an x-ray, this machine would rotate around the body and create cross-sectional images of the spine and structures near it.
This is like an x-ray but a contrast dye would be injected into the spinal fluid. The dye makes any problems show up better on the x-ray and can be used to show the amount of pressure on your spinal cord or nerves.
This test is oftentimes done first, and while it cannot detect a herniated disc, it is useful for ruling out any tumors, bone spurs, or other injuries that may be causing you pain. It can also show if there is any narrowing of the spaces in-between your vertebrae.