Knee ReplacementA herniated disc (also called a herniated disk or 'slipped disk') is one of the most common spinal conditions we see at Greater Pittsburgh Orthopaedic Associates (GPOA). If you've never experienced experienced disc herniation, you probably know someone who has.

But what is a herniated disc? How much do you know about this potential spine condition?

At GPOA, our team of board-certified spine specialists has extensive experience treating patients with herniated disks. We also feel strongly about educating our patients on risk factors and symptoms to look out for so that they can reach out for medical care as soon as they need it.

In this blog post, we'll provide a brief overview of disk herniation, explain some of the potential causes and risk factors, and let you know what to expect if you or a loved one are diagnosed with a herniated disc.

What is a Herniated Disk?

To understand a herniated spinal disk, it's important to understand how your spinal bones are structured. The 'spinal canal' refers to the hollow space in the center of your spinal column. This is where your spinal cord resides.

Your spinal bones (vertebrae) are stacked on top of each other and separated by spongy disks. These disks act as cushions between the vertebrae, absorbing impact and allowing your spine to move smoothly.

Alongside these bones exist spinal nerves and spinal nerve roots. A nerve root is a nerve ending that carries signals from your brain to the rest of your body.

A herniated disk occurs when the outer layer of the disk (the annulus) tears, allowing the inner layer of the disk (the nucleus) to bulge out. When this bulging disk puts pressure on nearby nerves, it can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the affected area.

What Causes a Herniated Disk?

There are a number of potential causes of a herniated (or 'slipped') disc. The most common is simply wear and tear that occurs with aging. As we age, our disks begin to degenerate and lose water content. This makes them less flexible and more prone to tearing.

Injury can also be a common herniated disc cause. A car accident, for example, or even just landing poorly after a slip or fall, can put enough force on the spine to cause a disk to rupture.

What Are Some Common Herniated Disc Symptoms?

Some of the most common symptoms of a herniated disk include:

  • Muscle weakness: This is caused by the pressure that a herniated disk puts on nearby nerves.
  • Numbness: A herniated disc can also cause numbness, tingling, or 'pins and needles' sensations in the affected area.
  • Sharp pain or shooting pain: When the disk presses on nerves, it can cause sharp or shooting pain. This pain may get worse when you sneeze, cough, or sit.
  • Back or neck pain: A herniated disc in your lower back may cause pain in your lower back or buttock. A herniated disc in your upper back may cause pain in your neck or shoulder.
  • A loss of bowel control: In rare cases, a herniated disc in the lower back can cause pressure on the nerves that control bowel movements.
  • A loss of bladder control: Similarly, a herniated disc in the lower back can also cause pressure on the nerves that control bladder function.

If these symptoms persist, it's important to seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Am I At Risk for a Herniated Disk?

Certain factors can increase your risk for disk herniation, including:

  • Obesity: Excess weight puts extra pressure on the disks in your spine, which can eventually lead to a herniated disk.
  • Smoking: Smoking has been linked to disc degeneration, which can make the disks more susceptible to tears.
  • Age: As we've discussed, disc degeneration can be part of your body's normal aging process. The disks in your spine naturally begin to wear down as you age, making them more likely to herniate.

Are There Different Types of Slipped Disc?

There are two main types of herniated disk:

  • Ruptured disc: A ruptured disc occurs when the inner layer of the disk (the nucleus) bulges out through a tear in the outer layer (the annulus).
  • Prolapsed disc: A prolapsed disc is similar to a ruptured disc, but the inner layer bulges out to the side of the disc, rather than through a tear.

Disks can also become herniated in different regions of the spine, including:

  • Herniated lumbar disk: Lumbar disc herniation is the most common type of herniated disk. It occurs in the lower back and can cause pain and/or numbness in the legs.
  • Herniated cervical disk: A herniated cervical disk occurs in the neck and can cause pain and/or numbness in the shoulders or arms.
  • Herniated thoracic disk: A herniated thoracic disk occurs in the upper back and is relatively rare. It can, however, cause pain in the chest or abdomen.

How is a Herniated Disk Diagnosed?

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms we've described, it's important to seek medical attention as soon as possible. Your doctor will likely ask about your symptoms and medical history, and may also perform a physical examination. To confirm a diagnosis of a herniated disc, your doctor may order a CT scan or MRI.

What Herniated Disc Treatment Options Are Available?

At GPOA, we're passionate about offering the most conservative treatments possible, and we always prefer nonsurgical treatment over immediately recommending surgery. Fortunately, most herniated disks can be treated without surgery. Your doctor may recommend:

  • Pain medication
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Spinal injections, such as epidural steroid injection

If conservative treatment doesn't offer you the long-term relief you deserve, your doctor may ultimately recommend surgery. Spinal surgery for a herniated disk usually involves removing the damaged portion of the disc.

In order to keep our procedures as minimally invasive as possible, we perform arthroscopic spine surgery whenever we can. Arthroscopic spine surgery is a minimally-invasive technique that uses tiny cameras and instruments to access the spine through small incisions.

Visit the Top Spine Surgeon Near You

If you're experiencing pain, numbness, or weakness, loss of bowel and bladder control, or any of the symptoms of a herniated disc, don't wait to get help. The expert orthopedic spine surgeons at GPOA are here to provide you with the diagnosis and treatment you need to get back to your life.

Experiencing chronic back pain? Looking for answers and long-term relief? The spine team at GPOA can help. If you're ready to receive care from the top spine specialist in Pittsburgh, PA, schedule your first appointment with Greater Pittsburgh Orthopaedic Associates today. We'll work with you to develop a treatment plan that's right for you.

Frequently Asked Questions

What lifestyle changes can help manage a herniated disc?

Lifestyle changes can play a significant role in managing a herniated disc. Maintaining a healthy weight helps reduce strain on the spine. Practicing good posture, both while sitting and standing, can alleviate pressure on the discs. Engaging in low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or cycling strengthens the supporting muscles without putting excessive strain on the discs. Additionally, avoiding activities that strain the back, such as heavy lifting or twisting motions, can help manage symptoms.

Can a herniated disc heal on its own?

In some cases, a herniated disc can heal naturally over time. With proper rest, physical therapy, and non-surgical treatments, the body may reabsorb the protruding disc material. It is important to follow medical advice and engage in recommended therapies to support the healing process.

Are there specific exercises to avoid with a herniated disc?

Yes, there are exercises to avoid if you have a herniated disc. High-impact activities, such as running or jumping, should be avoided as they can exacerbate symptoms and potentially worsen the condition. Heavy lifting and exercises involving twisting or bending the spine should also be avoided. It is best to consult with a healthcare professional or physical therapist who can provide a tailored exercise plan suited to your specific needs.

How does aging affect the risk of a herniated disc?

As people age, intervertebral discs lose hydration and become more susceptible to tearing, potentially increasing the risk of herniation. However, it's important to note that age-related changes vary among individuals. Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, including regular exercise and proper body mechanics, can help minimize the risk of disc degeneration and herniation.

Can spinal nerve inflammation cause leg pain?

Yes, spinal nerve inflammation can cause leg pain. The nerves in the spine are responsible for transmitting signals and sensations to different parts of the body, including the legs. Inflammation of these nerves, whether from a herniated disc or other condition, can lead to leg pain and discomfort. Seeking medical attention and proper treatment can help alleviate this pain.