Pain inhibits the quality of life, but as humans it’s an unavoidable feeling that we experience in some form or another during our lifetime. Unless you’re part robot or have an extremely high tolerance for pain, chances are it’s also sidelined you at some point.
The University of Maryland Medical Center reports that lower back pain is one of the most commonly reported problems affecting roughly 60 to 80 percent of the US population and also the cause for over two million chronic disability claims.
As unpleasant as any injury or discomfort can be, many people can agree that there are certain areas of the body that can cause more strife than others – there are few things more excruciating than lower back pain caused by a herniated disc.
The spinal column that runs the length of your back facilitates all sorts of movement – bending over, reaching, hugging, sitting up, lying down. Your back is connected in some way to every move your body makes. The spinal column is comprised of bones, nerve endings, and spongy discs. The discs act as cushions between the spinal bones and allow for movement such as bending and reaching.
A herniated disc, more commonly referred to as a slipped disc, occurs when a disc in the spine pushes through weakened areas in the spinal column. Sometimes this causes nearby nerves to become agitated by the disc pressure, causing even more pain.
Unless an injury is the cause of the herniated disc, the pain can gradually build for days, even weeks, before becoming more intense and debilitating. In some cases, unless the disc is putting pressure on nearby nerves, you may not even have much pain alerting you to the problem.
For others, however, the pain can become noticeably worse after long periods of standing, sitting, or after sleeping or lying down. Even everyday movements like walking or bending can aggravate the pain and driving can exacerbate the issue as the combination of sitting and lifting your foot to break or shift can apply additional pressure to the afflicted disc and nerves.
Signs & Symptoms
Common signs & symptoms of a herniated disc include:
- Sharp, stabbing pain; tenderness; stiffness or tightness
- Pain usually occurring on one side of the lower back as the disc puts pressure on the nerve
- Numbness extending down the leg
- Pain spreading around the lower back and through buttocks
- A “catching” feeling when performing simple movements like bending and reaching
- Normal wear and tear of the disc. The discs like everything else in the body ages and deteriorates over time. This causes the discs to become less flexible as they age and as the gel dries out.
- Injury can cause tears or cracks in the disc causing the gel inside the disc to push out placing pressure on surrounding nerves.
- Being overweight can cause extra strain and stress on your lower back. Chances are if you’re overweight you may also be less active causing the muscles in your back to weaken over time. Extra weight without adequate muscle support puts you at a greater risk for injury as your lower back cannot support the extra weight.
Whether the cause of your pain is from injury or deterioration, there are many treatments available. A doctor will be able to diagnose a herniated disc by performing a simple examination and asking questions about your symptoms. In some cases, your doctor will order an MRI or CT scan to rule out other possible diagnoses.
Once your doctor has diagnosed the herniated disc and its severity, you will have a better idea for treatment. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months for symptoms to clear. Your doctor may prescribe a pain reliever in addition to the following treatment:
- Exercises suggested by a physical therapist to strengthen back muscles and prevent future injuries.
- Heat therapy treatment for mild pain.
- Rest for severe pain only. Because inactivity can actually make the situation worse, your doctor may only suggest bed rest if you have severe pain. Keeping your muscles strong and flexible is more important to preventing future injuries.
- A chiropractor can help stretch out the lower back and take pressure off the nerve with a series of treatments and medical massages.
- As a last resort, surgery may be required. Your doctor should discuss all other possible treatments as back surgery is invasive and requires significant recovery time. Fortunately, less than 10 percent of herniated disc actually require surgery.
Most doctors will not recommend surgery for a herniated disc unless it severely limits quality of life and daily actives or if you have a history of recurring pain that doesn’t improve within at least a month after performing exercises and physical therapy.
Individuals who suffer from spinal diseases are more likely to be candidates for surgery as the condition is less likely to improve with exercise and physical therapy alone.
Surgical options for a herniated disc include:
- Removing the herniated disc that is putting pressure on the spinal column or nearby nerves. This method is used mostly for individuals with intense, debilitating pain that have experienced zero relief from traditional exercises and therapies.
- Removal of the herniated disc tissue which reduces the size of the herniation. This method is used more commonly in patients whose disc has not completely ruptured but is a less popular option among surgeons.
Of course the best scenario is that you never have to suffer from a herniated disc again. Take these precautionary measures to help prevent future incidents:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Since being overweight requires your body to work harder and puts more strain on your lower back, you should aim to be as close to a healthy weight as possible.
- Perform back strengthening exercise to help support the spinal column and surrounding muscles.
- Quit smoking. Smoking poisons your body and has been known to dehydrate the body. This can also exacerbate the natural dehydration of the disc gel that occurs with age.
- Learn good posture and employ those techniques. You should also maintain good posture and keep both feet flat on the floor while sitting for long periods of time, such as while sitting at your desk at work.
Most people will suffer from back pain at some point in their life, but taking precautions and knowing how to treat current back pain will go a long way in maintaining a healthy, strong back for many years to come.