If you’re experiencing chronic lower back pain, it is possible that you are suffering from a condition affecting the discs in your spine. Spinal discs that have become dislodged from their ideal position may cause pain in the back, neck, arms, legs, and shoulders. Some individuals may go through life with a bulging disc in their lower back without even realizing it, as the condition often arises as a natural part of the aging process. For others, however, a bulging or ruptured disc can cause unbearable pain, requiring medical treatment or surgery.
Are your spinal discs causing pain in your lower back? Read on to learn more about disc conditions, diagnosis, and treatment options.
What Are Spinal Discs?
Spinal discs, known formally as intervertebral discs, play an important role in spinal health. These discs function as both ligaments and shock absorbers, allowing for spinal movement while keeping vertebrae cushioned and protected.
Discs can suffer as a result of aging, poor posture, exhaustive exercises, and more. Some misaligned discs may cause little or no pain, and may shift back into position on their own. Others, however, may experience such conditions as sciatica or chronic, radiating back pain as a result of their disc condition. In cases where significant back or neck pain is experienced, professional treatment may be required.
What Disc Condition Am I Suffering From?
The terminology used to describe disc conditions can be somewhat difficult to decipher. It is often impossible to diagnose a disc condition based solely upon the symptoms being experienced. Regardless, this terminology will help you in understanding your condition, particularly after receiving a diagnosis.
A bulging disc is a condition in which a spinal disc bulges or sags outside of the vertebral column. Bulging discs are a common condition, and are often detected on MRI scans of patients over the age of 40. Bulging discs commonly occur as a part of the natural aging process. If a bulging disc is not causing a patient pain, it is generally not necessary to undergo treatment or surgery for the condition. Though bulging discs can sometimes return to place on their own, some instances may require more active treatment. Before treating a bulging disc condition, it is necessary to verify that it is indeed a bulging disc in the neck or back that is causing your pain. A bulging disc is often an incidental find when examining a patient’s back, and is not always the true source of one’s pain.
A herniated disc, often referred to colloquially as a ruptured disc or slipped disc is generally a more serious condition than a bulging disc. In disc herniation, the fibrous, outer ring of the intervertebral disc is torn, allowing the softer, more jelly-like interior to protrude from the disc. Oftentimes, a herniated disc occurs in a patient where bulging discs were previously present. Herniated discs, like bulging discs, often occur as a natural consequence of aging. Additional causes include physical trauma or strain.
Should I Seek Treatment for My Spinal Disc Condition?
In a number of cases, bulging or herniated discs will not require professional treatment. If only the disc tissue is damaged, the condition may result in little or no pain for the patient. When a protruding disc presses on a spinal nerve, however, a great amount of pain can be experienced, potentially causing radiating pain in the back, neck, and limbs.
It can be difficult to identify whether a condition is related to the spinal discs or another medical condition. Though the following list of symptoms may aid you in identifying a potential disc condition, it is important to note that only an MRI and medical examination can provide a definitive diagnosis regarding your back pain.
Symptoms of a disc condition may include, but are not limited to:
- chronic, sometimes severe pain, most often in the lower back, but also possible in the upper back and neck
- pain, tingling, and numbness in the legs, knees, feet, arms, or hands, often as a result of nerve pressure
- throbbing pain that may come and go, often concentrated on one side of the body
- in extreme cases, difficulties with bowels, sexual function, and potential paralysis
How Should I Treat My Disc Condition?
Medical professionals estimate that up to half of all disc conditions related to disc bulging or herniation may cause no pain, and generally do not require treatment. In other instances, however, persistent pain may require surgical or non-surgical treatment in order to provide the patient with relief.
Treating a Bulging Disc
In patients with bulging discs, proper posturing and exercise may help to restore a disc to its ideal position. Note that poor posture and improper exercise may exacerbate pain. It is important to consult a medical professional trained in spinal pain to determine which exercises are most suitable for your condition. A physical therapist may also be a helpful guide in reducing your disc pain.
Non-surgical treatment for a bulging disc generally focuses on returning disc fluid to the center of the disc, restoring it to its proper position. Tape or a brace along the spine may be used to help maintain ideal spinal positioning during the healing process, and a chiropractor may be consulted to help relieve spinal tension and pain. Painkillers and anti-inflammatory drugs may aid in reducing general pain. In rare cases, surgery may be required; this, however, is almost always unnecessary.
Treating a Herniated/Ruptured Disc
In patients with herniated discs, more active treatment may be required. Treatment for herniated discs can vary widely from doctor to doctor, and each individual case may require a different treatment plan.
Most minor instances of disc herniation will not require serious medical intervention. Anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers are often effective at reducing general pain. Most medical professionals will advise their patients to pursue a non-surgical treatment plan for a minimum of six weeks before considering more invasive procedures. Typical non-surgical remedies include, but are not limited to: physical therapy, chiropractic work, epidural injections, and other medicinal treatments.
Though non-surgical treatment will suffice for most patients, a limited number of individuals may require surgery to relieve them of their pain. Surgical treatment is generally considered only when a patient’s pain is chronic and severe, with such symptoms as persistent pain and numbness in the limbs, limiting the patient’s ability to complete everyday activities.
In cases of severe lumbar disc herniation, a discectomy is generally prescribed. This microsurgical treatment generally involves removing part of the jelly-like disc interior, relieving pressure and nerve pain in the back. In rare cases, a spinal fusion may be performed.
Trying to treat back pain and lumbar disc conditions can be physically and emotionally tiring. Though your current symptoms may be bothersome, it is reassuring to note that nearly all back pain conditions, including those due to disc problems, can, and often do, resolve themselves within weeks. If you have a history of back problems, consider consulting a physical therapist for preventative exercises. Treating your current disc condition and preventing future back problems will aid you in finding lasting relief.