Do you have this excruciating lower back pain that gets intense when you bend or sleep in a particular position? You probably have a herniated disc.
Herniated discs are quite common, affecting 5 to 20 people per 1000 adults in the United States. This condition causes intense pain, limiting you from engaging in daily activities such as walking.
Read on to learn more about what a herniated disc is, its causes, treatment, and how to prevent it.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc is simply a ruptured or damaged disc. These discs are between the spinal vertebrae in the vertebral column.
They contain a gel-like fluid called the nucleus pulposus. The primary function of this fluid is to absorb shock when you move and prevent friction between the spine’s vertebrae, minimizing the risk of injuries.
That fluid has a tough outer layer known as the annulus, protecting it.
Due to normal wear and tear because of aging (a process called disc degeneration), the discs lose some of the nucleus pulposus, making them spongy and soft. When the spine experiences immense pressure, the annulus may crack, tear, or herniate.
Since there isn’t enough space in the spinal canal to accommodate the annulus fragment, it may get pushed against the nearby spinal nerve, leading to intense pain in the lower back.
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
Apart from the disc degeneration process, several other factors could make your discs more susceptible to damage. Let’s take a look at a couple of them.
People who are overweight are more likely to experience excruciating lower back pain from a herniated disc. The excess weight puts a lot of pressure on the spine and other structures such as the discs causing them to get damaged over time.
The extra weight you carry in your stomach may also lead to a herniated disc. The excess fat in your belly causes the back to move into an arch position in an attempt to support your stomach. This position may put a lot of pressure on the discs, eventually causing them to herniate.
The unusual change in position of your back and pelvis can cause the outer layer of your discs to wear out, making them more prone to being damaged.
Physically Demanding Jobs
Occupations involving repetitive twisting or bending the back in an odd way may put a lot of stress on the spine, increasing the risk of you having a herniated disc.
Like baldness and poor eyesight, you can also inherit a herniated disc. While it hasn’t been 100% proven, studies show that genetics play a massive role in disc degeneration and eventually a herniated disc.
According to a recent study, people who have an immediate family member such as a parent with lower back pain due to a herniated disc are four times more likely to have the same condition.
Believe it or not, smoking may also increase the risk of getting a herniated disc.
Smoking increases the carbon monoxide levels in your body, affecting the ability of your discs to absorb vital nutrients from your blood. And when they do not obtain the nutrients they need, they may wear out quickly, making them more susceptible to tearing or rupturing.
What Does a Herniated Disc Feel Like?
Since the discs are in-between the spinal bones, a herniated disc can occur anywhere in the spine, meaning you can experience pain in other parts like the neck. However, most herniated discs occur in the lower part of the back, so you may have most symptoms around that area.
Let’s look at some symptoms of a herniated disc.
Lower Back Pain
One of the symptoms of a damaged disc is lower back pain, mainly because the disc is getting pushed against the nearby spinal nerve root. The pain may extend to your buttocks, thighs, and sometimes your legs.
You may also experience some numbness or tingling in a specific part of your back because of the herniated disc pressing itself against the nerves in that area.
Weakness and the Inability to Lift Items
The muscles connected to the affected nerves may begin to weaken, causing you to have difficulty walking.
Other symptoms you are likely to experience include:
- Excruciating pain while walking
- Pain when sleeping in certain positions
- Intense pain after standing or sitting
Do Herniated Discs Heal?
Well, yes and no. The symptoms from a herniated disc may subside over time, but that doesn’t mean that the damaged disc has gone back to its normal shape.
There are three processes in which herniated disc-related symptoms might ease. Let’s explore each of them in detail.
An Immune Response by Your Body
Your body may identify the herniated disc fragment as a foreign material, therefore attacking it and minimizing the size of that piece. And the smaller the ruptured bit of your disc is, the less pressure it will apply to the nearby spinal nerve, reducing the symptoms.
The herniated piece of the disc may contain some of the nucleus pulposus. As time goes by, your body may absorb this fluid, causing it to shrink. When the disc fragment is small in size, it won’t put much pressure on the spinal nerve.
Can a herniated disc heal with exercise? Engaging in exercises may also move the herniated disc fragment away from the adjacent nerve roots, minimizing symptoms such as excruciating lower back pain.
How to Treat a Herniated Disc
While there are several ways to relieve herniated disc-related symptoms at home, it is vital to visit a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.
Your doctor may use different imaging tests such as myelograms, MRIs, or CT scans to determine whether you have a herniated disc in the first place.
This test is a process whereby your doctor injects a dye into your spinal fluid before taking an X-ray. The dye will show areas where there’s pressure on the spinal nerve due to a herniated disc.
A CT scan takes several X-rays of your spine to create cross-sectional images of your spinal column. These images help the doctor identify whether there is a ruptured disc fragment.
Also called Magnetic Resonance Imaging, an MRI uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to form internal images of your spine. They will enable the doctor to pinpoint the location of the herniated disc and which nerves have been affected.
Your doctor may also conduct a couple of nerve tests to help establish whether there has been any nerve damage. These tests include:
Doctors insert a needle electrode into your back muscles through your skin during an EMG. Doing so will examine their electrical activity when they contract and at rest.
Once your doctor has determined that you have a herniated disc, they will recommend and administer several treatments.
The doctor may administer and recommend various medications to help relieve the pain and other symptoms caused by a herniated disc. Among these medications include:
Over-the-Counter Pain Medicines
Pain medicines such as naproxen sodium, ibuprofen, and acetaminophen provide herniated disc pain relief.
If the pain medications aren’t effective, your doctor may inject your spinal nerves with a corticosteroid to reduce inflammation.
In rare cases, the doctor may prescribe the short-term use of opioids to help minimize the pain. However, many medics don’t recommend them because of the risk of addiction.
Your physician may also suggest physiotherapy to help lessen the symptoms of a herniated disc. A physiotherapist will take you through a series of exercises that will minimize the pain over time.
The doctor may also recommend using a medical back brace to support your back during the first few weeks of recovery.
If all of the treatment measures don’t work, your doctor may suggest going for surgery.
During the operation, the surgeon will remove the herniated disc fragment. They may also remove the entire affected disc and fuse the adjacent vertebrae with a bone graft.
How to Fix a Herniated Disc At Home
Your physician may also recommend several at-home remedies to help provide pain relief and speed the healing process. Here’s how to heal a herniated disc quickly at home.
Rest, But Not Too Much
If you are wondering how to heal a herniated disc naturally, you’ll be happy to know that you don’t have to do much but rest. Resting is essential as it helps reduce the surrounding spinal nerve irritation that causes pain.
However, resting too much may do your back more harm than good. For starters, prolonged bed rest may weaken your extensor and flexor spinal muscles, which may affect your ability to engage in day-to-day activities like walking.
Lying down too much can also cause your other discs to swell due to excessive absorption of fluids. The increase in size may make them more prone to damage even with the slightest movements.
So it is crucial to engage in light exercises between your resting periods to keep your spine in perfect shape.
Use Hot and Cold Compresses
Are you wondering how to relieve herniated disc pain in your lower back? Placing a hot or ice pack on that area can help.
Heat is known to relax muscles, easing pressure. On the other hand, an ice pack constricts the blood vessels, reducing the blood flow to that area, therefore, minimizing inflammation which could lead to pain.
Pay Attention to Your Back
It is vital to “listen” to your back, especially during the first few weeks after having a herniated disc. Don’t move a certain way or bend if you feel pain when doing so. And if you must move in that manner, ensure that you take it slow to avoid further damage.
How to Avoid Getting a Herniated Disc
While there are natural causes of a herniated disc like aging and genetics, there are still many ways to prevent it from happening. Here are tips on how to avoid having a herniated disc.
- Maintain a healthy weight
- Practice the correct lifting techniques
- Try keeping your back and spine in an upright posture, especially when sitting.
- Exercise regularly to help strengthen your back muscles
- Avoid smoking
- Take some time to stretch your back muscles, especially if you sit for long.
While you may not feel the effects of a herniated lumbar disc immediately after it happens, the symptoms afterward can be pretty excruciating.
However, keep in mind that a herniated disc’s symptoms may be similar to those of other back issues. So, it is essential to visit a doctor to establish whether you might have a herniated disc.