Herniated Disc in the Cervical, Thoracic, & Lumbar Spine

Definition

Herniated discs affect the spine. They are known by different names, which include "slipped discs," "prolapsed discs" or "ruptured discs." The "discs" referred to in these different names are the intervertebral discs that are located between the spinal vertebrae.

The intervertebral discs are made up of a gel-like center (the nucleus pulposus) which is surrounded by a fibrous outer rim (the annulus fibrosus). These discs provide cushioning for the vertebrae, absorb shock for the spine, and allow the spine to bend and move.

If the gel-like middle escapes or leaks out through a tear or crack in the rim of the disc, the condition is known as a herniated disc. Sometimes, a herniated disc doesn't cause any pain or other symptoms, but if the herniated portion of the disc creates inflammation in the spinal canal, it can create symptoms. 

Back pain develops for many different reasons. A slipped disc is a condition people often use to describe the condition that is known in medical terms as a herniated disc. The condition is also sometimes called a "ruptured" disc. It's often thought that everyone who suffers from back pain has a slipped disc in their back, or has a herniated disc but the condition is not as common as most people think. In fact, most cases of back pain are caused by conditions other than a slipped disc. When people see their general practice physicians for new onset back pain, a slipped disc is found to be the source of their symptoms only 2% of the time.


Conditions other than a slipped disc that can cause back pain include:

In some cases, a herniated disc produces no pain or any other distressing symptoms. Disc hernia symptoms develop when the spinal nerves become pinched, compressed or irritated. Sometimes, people who have herniated discs experience symptoms, such as pain but these symptoms occur due to other back or spine conditions that existed when the intervertebral disc herniated.

The most common symptom of a herniated disc is pain. Inflammation and compression of the spinal nerves can cause other symptoms of disc herniation like tingling and numbness or weakness in the extremities. A herniated disc can also cause symptoms that include abnormal reflexes in the legs or arms. Where these symptoms occur, depend on where the herniated disc is located.

  • Cervical Spine: When herniated discs are located in the upper area of the spine, neck pain typically occurs and symptoms can radiate into the arms or the shoulders.
  • Thoracic Spine: Herniated discs in the mid-portion of the spine are rare. When they do occur in this section, pain may travel from the back into the chest area or ribs.
  • Lumbar Spine: When herniated disc occurs in the lower back, pain, numbness or tingling may travel into the buttocks, into the back of the thighs or down into the legs. These symptoms are sometimes known as sciatica.
If a herniated disc occurs in the lumbar area, or lower portion of the spine, disc hernia symptoms often include:
  •  Lower back pain, radiating into one or both buttocks, down into the back of the thigh, and travelling down the leg
  • Tingling and/or numbness in one or both of the lower extremities can be a herniated disc symptom
  • Muscle weakness in one or both of the legs
  • Impaired reflexes in one or both of the legs is a possible herniated disc symptom. Know more about herniated disk symptoms...

Herniated disk causes

The processes of growing older and degeneration of the spine are the main reasons herniated discs occur. Changes related to aging happen gradually. The intervertebral discs slowly dehydrate or dry out. When this happens, they become stiff and are not as flexible and herniated discs slowly develop over time.

Occasionally, herniated discs appear suddenly. This happens when a traumatic injury, such as a fall, a motor vehicle accident, or a sudden twisting or heavy lifting episode results in a herniated disc. 

Young adults and middle-aged people are most likely to suffer a true herniated disc. Herniated discs rarely happen in children. Degenerative changes in the spine and discs that occur with aging make true herniated discs less likely to develop in the elderly.  Know more about reasons of disk hernia...

Treatment 

Surgery is not always the recommended treatment for a herniated disc. In fact, in most cases, surgery is not needed to treat a herniated disc. How the condition is treated usually depends on what symptoms are present, how severe they are, and if they are getting better. Surgery is more likely to be recommended as a herniated disc treatment option if the symptoms include muscles weakness, or if symptoms are not improving after several weeks of more conservative treatment.

If pain and symptoms like numbness and tingling are gradually getting better, treatment for a herniated disc may include continued therapy and gentle exercise, and medications to help control the inflammation of the condition. Many people with severe pain caused by the initial rupture find their symptoms completely resolve within a few weeks of this type of herniated disc treatment.  Know more about herniated disk treatment...

Image drawing of a herniated disc, as well as bulging and normal disc