Living with a herniated disc
A herniated disc can cause a great deal of discomfort and seriously affect your day-to-day activities. The disorder occurs when the cushion of tissue located between the vertebrae of your spine slips out of place, causing the spinal cord and spinal nerves to become pinched and irritated.
There are two main causes of a herniated disc. The first is a sudden trauma. Perhaps you hit your back or picked up a heavy load without properly bending your knees? Any of these activities could cause a disc to slip out of place.
The second cause is a disorder called spinal stenosis. This causes the natural space between each vertebra to narrow. If a disc is then displaced, spinal stenosis means that the exposed nerves of the spinal cord are more likely to be irritated, because there is less space between each bone of the vertebrae.
Symptoms of a herniated disc can be alarming and painful. If you experience any of the following symptoms, a herniated disc may be the cause:
- Sciatica. A spasm that travels down your leg. It is a sharp, stabbing pain in a narrow strip, worsening below the knee and in the foot. Sciatica is caused by an irritation of the sciatic nerve, and is often, although not always, associated with a herniated disc in the lower back.
- Migraine. A migraine is a severe form of headache, often utterly debilitating for the duration of its presence. There are many causes, although research suggests that it can be associated with a herniated disc in the neck placing pressure on the nerves at the base of the skull.
- Tingling, numbness and stabbing pains. Occurring in your limbs, these sensations are caused by the nerves in your spine becoming irritated.
- Muscle weakness. Trapped nerves can result in messages from the brain failing to reach muscles correctly, resulting in weakness or very mild paralysis.
- Bowel and bladder problems. If you experience problems urinating or defecating, you should seek medical advice immediately, as it may indicate cauda equina syndrome. This is where the nerves at the base of your spine are severely constricted, and requires urgent treatment.
Your doctor will diagnose a herniated disc by testing your reflexes, sensory abilities and muscle strength. An MRI scan or X-ray will be conducted to confirm the diagnosis. All of these methods are virtually pain-free, and they will enable your physician to plan the best course of treatment for you.
Treatment for a herniated disc often begins with some self-help and lifestyle changes, such as:
- Rest. Avoiding activities that aggravate your condition, such as heavy lifting, is essential for your own comfort and the swift healing of a herniated disc.
- Ice and heat applications. These help to relax the muscles of your back and reduce the pain of muscle spasms.
- Physical therapy. By performing a series of exercises every day, it is possible to strengthen the back muscles. Although this will not help the herniated disc directly, it will improve the muscular support of your spine and reduce the strain on the damaged area.
These methods can help the herniated disc to rectify itself without the need for surgical intervention. Anti-inflammatory and oral steroid medications may be used in conjunction with these self-help methods to relieve your painful symptoms and reduce inflammation.
Surgery to remove the herniated disc (a discectomy) is often performed if symptoms are severe and persistent, and the herniated disc does not rectify itself. In these situations the displaced disc is removed and the affected area treated to help alleviate the strain on the nerves and spinal cord. This surgery is almost always performed under general anesthetic, and a patient can expect to be discharged within 48 hours, with their symptoms gradually disappearing over the course of a few weeks.
A herniated disc is rarely life-threatening, and seeking medical advice at the earliest opportunity will alleviate your discomfort and give you peace of mind.
By A. Bertram
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