One of the most common issues we see with our clients is concern over a herniated disc of the spine. Sometimes it’s a sharp, electric zing. Other times, it’s tight and achy. And sometimes, it’s not a herniated disc at all.
Many people have heard the term “herniated disc,” but few people truly understand what that is. In fact, it’s frequently misdiagnosed by other chiropractors and even doctors. Over the years, that has led us to develop a specialty in herniated discs and an impressive success rate with treating them without invasive procedures.
Here’s what you need to know about herniated discs – and how we can help.
What is a Herniated Disc?
Herniated discs can cause pain, numbness, and weakness from the inner gel-like substance of a spinal disc protruding.
Essentially, you have discs between every vertebrae of your spine to allow for spinal compression and impact. These discs are made from a gel-like substance that’s contained within a layer of thick fibrocartilage. Even when you walk or stand, your spine experiences compression, and these discs act as helpful shock absorbers. Occasionally, though, something happens that causes a fissure or tear in a disc, and what’s inside leaks out, causing nerve pain.
Think of squishing the jelly out of a jelly donut.
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc can happen quickly with one wrong move, like deadlifting too much weight without optimal form or a traumatic injury or fall.
It can also happen with repetitive movements over time that slowly tear the fibers until there’s too much damage to contain the “jelly.” In this case, you can usually tell it’s coming; you have an achy, sore lower back that doesn’t check all the boxes of a herniated disc – yet. If you catch it at this point, you can address it before it becomes a bigger deal.
The latter accounts for about 80 percent of the disc injuries we see. People experience minor episodes on and off for a decade, and it keeps building until they can’t sit up straight or walk. You might bend to pick up a pencil or sneeze, and that’s the final tear that does you in.
A herniated disc can also be a combination of the two: wear-and-tear exasperated by a traumatic injury.
With a herniated disc, one of two main factors typically causes the nerve pain. It can be either direct pressure on the nerve root, or indirect pressure on the nerve root due to chemical irritants that are released, triggering pain and inflammation.
What are the Symptoms of Disc Herniation?
The symptoms of disc herniation vary, but a common one is pain shooting down the leg. That’s likely a sign that you have pressure on the related nerve and can be a cause of sciatica. However, pain down the leg can have different causes, too.
Other symptoms of disc herniation can include lower back pain, or pain with sitting and/or bending forward. Sometimes the back seizes up and you can’t move without pain.
As for what the pain feels like, acute disc herniation (from a traumatic event) is often sharp, electric, and shooting. Wear-and-tear pain tends to be tight, achy, and restrictive. Cervical (neck) vs. lower back herniations also can feel different.
Ultimately, symptoms can vary from person to person, so there’s only one way to be sure: Get a thorough exam with an expert.
How To Treat a Herniated Disc
The first step in treating a herniated disc is the exam. We look at your history/lifestyle, symptoms, and how they respond to different treatments. Whether the symptoms improve, stay the same, or get worse are important pieces of the puzzle. In the initial exam, we can typically narrow it down to one or two most likely causes, and the treatment is based on that why.
Treatments may include chiropractic adjustments, physical therapy techniques, dry needling, decompression, and at-home exercises. One goal of the treatments is to determine the direction of the disc herniation, so we can prescribe repetitive motions in the opposite direction to help squeeze that jelly back inside.
When you leave the office, we’re usually 97 percent sure we know what’s wrong. After two days of at-home exercises based on the exam results, that number changes to 100 percent or 0 percent. Usually the former.
Can You Prevent it?
There are many different tests and treatments for a herniated disc, and there are steps to care for your spine and body, but there’s nothing you can do to 100 percent guarantee you’ll never herniate a disc. Unfortunately, life happens. You can be the healthiest, strongest person in town and just take one rough fall while skiing and end up in our office.
The Bottom Line on Herniated Discs
You can’t prevent disc herniations, but the good news is you can treat it – and it’s rarely invasive.
Of the approximately 1,000 disc herniations we have treated, maybe three needed surgery. Everyone else improved with the proper treatments. We have even worked with people already scheduled for surgery who ended up canceling it because we helped them gain control of their pain.
The bottom line: We’re good at figuring out your problem and treating it. And we’re honest about it, too. If you’re not improving after three visits, we know we need to refer you for a different kind of help.
If you want to learn more, book an appointment so we can help.