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Lumbar Disk Herniation

People can have a herniated disk in any part of the spine, but most herniated disks are in the lower back (lumbar spine).

Herniated disks also occur in the neck (cervical spine) and, more rarely, in the upper back (thoracic spine).

The lumbar is the lower back. The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine in the back are cushioned with small, spongy disks. When these disks are healthy, they act as shock absorbers to keep the spine flexible. When a disk is damaged, however, it may bulge or break open. This is called a herniated disk, also referred to as a slipped or ruptured disk.

What causes a herniated disk?

Two main causes contribute to a herniated disk:

  1. Wear and tear – As you age, your disks dry out and lose flexibility.
  2. Injury to the spine – This may cause tears or cracks in the hard, outer layer of the disk. When this happens, the thick gel inside the disk can be forced through these openings into the disk’s outer layer. This causes it to bulge or rupture.

Symptoms of a herniated disk

When a herniated disk presses on nerve roots, it can cause pain, numbness and weakness in the area of the body where the nerve travels. A herniated disk in the lower back can cause pain and numbness in the buttock and down the leg. This is called sciatica, the most common symptom of a lumbar disk hernia. If a herniated disk isn’t pressing on a nerve, you may have a backache or no pain at all.

What are the major risk factors?

Some risk factors you cannot change, like getting older, being male and having a history of back injury. However, there are some risk factors that you can avoid. These include:

  • Long periods of sitting
  • Being overweight
  • Not exercising or exercising too strenuously after a long period of inactivity
  • Smoking, which keeps spinal disks from absorbing nutrients
  • Lifting or pulling heavy objects
  • Frequent bending or twisting of the back
  • Heavy physical exertion
  • Repetitive motions
  • Exposure to constant vibration, such as driving

Diagnoses

At Southwest Scoliosis Institute, we start with a medical history and physical exam. If these are indicative of a herniated disk, you probably won’t need additional tests. However, if your medical history and physical exam suggest a more serious condition, we may order other tests to help form a diagnosis.

Disk Herniation Treatment

Only about one person in 10 will eventually have surgery. Usually a herniated disk will heal on its own over time. About half of those with a herniated disk get better within one month, and most are better within six months. Here are some suggestions to help recovery:

  • Stay active – Only rest when you have severe pain. Staying in bed for more than one or two days can weaken your muscles and make the problem worse. Walking and other light activity may help.
  • Use a heating pad and ice pack – We recommend alternating heat and ice throughout the day.For the heating pad, use a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every two to three hours.In between the heating pad sessions, try an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes, also at an interval of every two to three hours.Feel free to substitute a warm shower in place of one heating pad session. You can also buy single-use heat wraps that last up to eight hours (forgoing the ice pack during this time if you prefer to keep the wrap in place).
  • Exercise as prescribed – The exercises that your physical therapist suggest will help keep your back muscles strong and prevent another injury.
  • Consider pain relievers – While these won’t cure a herniated disk, the medication may help with pain and swelling.

Please note: If you have weakness or numbness in both legs along with loss of bladder or bowel control, seek immediate medical care. This could be a sign of a rare but serious condition called cauda equina syndrome.

If you or a loved one suffers from spinal pain, you owe it to yourself to call Southwest Scoliosis Institute at 972-985-2797 to make an appointment.