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Oakland Spine News

What if Your Back Pain is a Herniated Disc?

What is a herniated disc?
Discs are shock absorbers for the spine – they’re flexible, almost gelatinous disks between vertebrae that cushion the spine and permit full range of motion. Sometimes these discs can degenerate and herniate, which means material from inside the disc can leak out. This can cause a great deal of pain, because when a disc herniates it presses on spinal nerves. Approximately 90% of disc herniations occur toward the bottom of the spine, known as the lumbar spine. A herniated disc with a pinched nerve can be extremely painful.

What are the symptoms of a herniated disc with a pinched nerve?
Symptoms of this nerve impingement are weakness in extending the big toe and ankle (foot drop), numbness can be felt on top of the foot, and can radiate into the buttock. If a different nerve is involved, the ankle reflex is lost and the patient cannot rise to their toes using their ankle. Pain in this case radiates down to the sole or outside the foot.

How is a herniated disc treated non-surgically?
Pain from a herniated disc often resolves on its own over time, as the prolapsed material is reabsorbed by the body, but until this happens (usually between four and six weeks) there can be considerable pain.

Bed rest is not recommended beyond a day or two for a herniated disc with a pinched nerve. Even in these cases, regular movement is advised to maintain muscle tone. Pain medication, cold and/or heat therapy, electrostimulation, bracing, traction, steroid injections and hydrotherapy are often used to control discomfort until the condition resolves.

While many people turn to medications and even surgery, they are very often ineffective and sometimes not necessary. It is during this period that chiropractic manipulations and physical therapy are often recommended, and in 80 to 90% of cases of a herniated disc with a pinched nerve, no surgery is required. New technological advances, such as class IV deep tissue laser and spinal decompression, comprise some of the latest non-surgical therapeutic modalities that can successfully resolve the problem and eliminate the need for surgery.

Other treatment options include medication to reduce the pain associated with herniated discs and, in severe cases where conservative treatments fail to relieve the symptoms, surgery may be performed to remove the protruding portion of the disc. Rarely, the entire disc may be removed and spinal stability may need to be provided by fusing metal hardware, or in some cases, an artificial disc may be implanted. Surgery should always be the last resort because of the statistically high failure rate and long recovery time.

Reprinted with permission from Think Teachers Magazine.