What Is a Herniated Disc and How Does it Develop? | BEST

If you have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, you are likely familiar with the pain and symptoms often caused by this condition. As you begin to research treatment options available to help you find pain relief, it’s important to understand what causes a herniated disc to develop in the first place. 

Understanding what causes a herniated disc, also referred to as a disc herniation, ruptured disc, or torn disc, is an important step in determining the best treatment options for your condition. For example, a doctor may recommend a different form of treatment for a herniated disc that developed gradually from weight gain as opposed to a herniated disc that developed suddenly from an auto accident. Take the time to research this condition so you can be prepared for your appointment with your doctor. 

The Beginnings of a Herniated Disc

The spinal column begins at the base of the skull and spans from the cervical spine in the neck through the thoracic spine in the middle back and into the lumbar spine in the lower back. Made up of 24 individual vertebral bodies and several fused vertebrae in the pelvic region, the spinal column is flexible enough to allow for the full range of motion in the neck and back that is required for daily activity and also strong enough to support the weight of the upper body. 

Serving as shock-absorbing cushions for the spine, discs are positioned between adjacent vertebrae to facilitate movement and reduce friction. Each disc has a thick exterior composed of collagen fiber, which surrounds and contains an inner core of protein gel. These components are high in water content and must remain well hydrated and pliable in order to function properly. For a variety of reasons, the discs can begin to deteriorate and dehydrate over time, becoming brittle and prone to breakage. If a fissure develops in a disc’s annulus fibrosus, some of the nucleus pulposus can pass through its compromised boundary. This condition is referred to as a herniated disc. Pain and other uncomfortable symptoms can develop if displaced inner disc material irritates or pressures the disc wall, the spinal cord, or a nearby nerve root. 

Possible Causes of a Herniated Disc

A herniated disc can result from a number of factors, including: 

  • The Natural Aging Process. Due to the cumulative effects on an aging body and ongoing wear and tear on the spinal components, the discs gradually weaken and become more susceptible to rupture. 
  • Spinal Trauma. Injuries that result from a forceful blow to the spine can cause immediate disc herniation.
  • Repetitive Stress. Sitting for prolonged periods of time or repeatedly lifting heavy objects can cause a series of small tears to develop in a disc’s outer wall, tears that worsen over time can lead to full disc herniation. 
  • Unhealthy Body Weight. The spine must support the majority of the body’s weight and the pressure of carrying extra pounds, particularly in the abdominal region, can strain and damage the spinal components. 
  • Poor Nutrition. An unbalanced diet can lead to weight gain and also deprive the discs of the nutrients needed to remain supple and strong. 
  • Genetics. A family history of disc herniation and other degenerative spine conditions can increase the likelihood a person will develop similar conditions. 

Signs of a Herniated Disc

While a herniated disc does not always cause symptoms, the condition can create localized pain in the tear that affects the small nerves located in the uppermost layers of the outer wall of the affected disc. Additionally, a variety of uncomfortable symptoms can develop if the disc wall or escaped nucleus pulposus exerts pressure on the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root. For instance, some people experience neck or back pain, radiating pain that travels through an arm or leg, muscle weakness, numbness, or walking difficulties. 

A Closer Look at Herniated Disc Symptoms

A herniated disc can conceivably occur in the cervical, thoracic, or lumbar region of the spine, although it is most likely to develop in the lumbar spine since it supports the most weight. The specific symptoms associated with a herniated disc also depend on the location of the disc degeneration. Most commonly, this condition is associated with localized pain near the origin of the tear in the disc wall, although symptoms can extend throughout the body when displaced disc material irritates or compresses a nearby nerve root or the spinal cord. In fact, when nerve root or spinal cord compression occurs, it can result in symptoms that appear far from the origin of the problem, making diagnosis by a physician necessary for effective treatment. 

Here are a few examples of the symptoms that can develop as a result of a herniated disc:

  • Cervical Herniated Disc. Localized pain in the neck, tingling sensations, muscle weakness and numbness, difficulty walking, a feeling of heaviness, and a decline of fine motor skills. 
  • Thoracic Herniated Disc. Upper back pain radiating into the chest or stomach, back stiffness and muscle weakness. 
  • Lumbar Herniated Disc. Discomfort in the lower back, pain in the lower body, diminished reflexes, muscle spasms, and loss of bowel or bladder control. 

The symptoms of a herniated disc can vary widely depending on both the location and severity of the damaged disc, and many of the symptoms commonly associated with this condition can also be explained by the presence of additional spinal degeneration, including facet disease, spinal stenosis, and spondylolisthesis. In order to effectively manage the symptoms of a herniated disc, the exact cause, location, and severity of the condition has to be identified by a medical professional. 

BEST Health System

If you are suffering from chronic back pain and have exhausted conservative treatment options, call BEST Health System today. Our team of dedicated doctors are experienced in finding patients the most effective, least invasive treatment option. Reach out today and get started on your path to recovery. The BEST is yet to come.