“Sooner than later” increases your treatment options for your herniated disc.
Have you developed chronic and persistent pain somewhere along your spine – maybe your neck or between the lower portion of your ribs and your hips? Are you in your 30s or 40s or later? It’s possible that you have a herniated disc. You should see your doctor for a check-up and have your back examined by a qualified physician.
If it is a herniated disc, it won’t get much better with hope and some over-the-counter pills. Seeing your doctor sooner than later is so important because a condition like a herniated disc is progressive: it will get worse with time. And the worse it gets, the more limited your treatment options become.
What I mean by “worse” is spinal fusion: major surgery that takes several hours to accomplish and up to 6 months of recovery. And that’s if there are no complications. The worst part about spinal fusion is that your spine will be restricted and you will have limited movement. There’s also the very real likelihood that fusion on one portion of your spine will lead to additional surgeries.
Attacked very early, your pain from a herniated disc could be eased with minimally invasive endoscopic microsurgery – an outpatient procedure that lasts only 40 minutes with a recovery time of 8 weeks or so. Early detection can also lead to total disc replacement surgery, a procedure that takes about two hours with a recovery of about two months.
In many cases where a herniated disc is detected very early, that treatment options may not include surgery at all, but with increased smart exercise, nutrition, and other non-surgical therapies. The best part about attacking the problem early is that you can retain much (or all) of your natural movement – which is vital for living a full and active life.
Among the symptoms of a herniated disc include limited range of movement from the cervical (neck), thoracic (middle back), or lumbar (lower back) regions of your spine. One of the things I watch for is how a patient will not twist their spine due to the pain. They do what I call a “robot move” – they turn their whole body just to see what’s behind them.
How do herniated discs occur?
The first thing you learn about a herniated disc is that a full range of movement that we once took for granted, is now impossible without significant pain and discomfort. Untreated, the pain and discomfort will increase, which may lead to additional complications. But how does it occur in the first place?
When I said that a herniated disc is progressive, the truth is, the discs in your spine may begin to show signs of deterioration as early as your 20s. The natural aging process causes them to lose their firm cushion properties; they flatten out and are easier to damage permanently. In some cases, discs will swell and bulge out, which may cause other conditions which are easily treated when caught early. But the surprise is that while these changes are part of the aging process and account for most episodes of neck and low back pain, a herniated disc can continue to deteriorate even without pain.
One of the most unwelcome changes of aging is stiffness throughout the body. You lose a little flexibility with each passing year. Where the spine is concerned, the stiffness is usually starting with the gradual deterioration of the fibrous outer shell of the disc.
When the shell becomes more brittle (really the best way to describe it), it is prone to cracking that allow the soft, compressible material inside to leak out. If I were to give a comparison, the inside of a disc has the consistency of crab meat – moist and pliable. This is why we call it a rupture, or herniation.
In some cases, the soft inside of the disc may protrude enough to irritate a nearby nerve. This is where the pain in your neck or back may originate. You may also experience a tingling sensation up and down an arm or leg. Other ways to describe the condition: a slipped disc, ruptured disc, bulging disc, and protrusion. Please note that even though some may say “slipped disc,” in reality, the disc is still firmly attached to the vertebrae.
The location of the pain depends on where the herniation has occurred (cervical, thoracic, lumbar). If the nerve is irritated in the neck, you may experience an ache along the inside edge of your shoulder blade. In the lower back, if your disc irritates the nerve you will likely feel an ache or pain in the gluteal area (buttocks). You may think that you have pulled a muscle, but it is the result of a pinched or irritated the nerve.
Additional symptoms may be mild to severe shooting pain in an extremity (arm or leg). If the damaged disc is located in the thoracic region, you may also experience numbness or tingle in the legs, or feet. You may also experience sudden shooting pain when you cough or sneeze, or after prolonged sitting or standing.
I hope that by learning these symptoms, you may become proactive about the health of your spine. The treatment options for spinal conditions have changed significantly in just the last ten years. Many of the options now include minimally invasive outpatient procedures. Caught early enough, you could be looking at a treatment that doesn’t require surgery at all.
The most important factor for your spine: preserving movement. After all, movement is life.