Your spine is a complicated combination of bones, muscle, tissue and nerves. The central structural part of the spine is a series of connected bones known as vertebrae.
Connecting and cushioning the vertebrae are discs, which are made up of connective tissue. When a disc begins losing effectiveness, usually in later years of life, it may rupture - the medical term is herniated.
When the disc herniates, it may press on nerves in the spine and cause pain, numbness, tingling or weakness depending on where the herniation occurs. Disc herniations occur in two main areas of the spine:
The types of symptoms you may experience depend on where the disc herniation occurs. A disc herniation may cause neck or back pain.
When a disc herniation causes nerve compression pain, patients may experience weakness, numbness or tingling in the arms and shoulders. Rarely, a herniated cervical disc may cause discomfort in the legs.
Disc herniations in the low back cause leg symptoms if the nerves are severely compressed.
How is a herniated disc diagnosed?
Like all spine issues, your doctor will do a thorough examination of the spine and take a complete medical history. The doctor will note the location of pain, weakness or other symptoms to help determine the rupture's location. Additional tests, including spine CT scan or MRI may be needed.
How is a herniated disc treated?
Many herniated discs can be treated without surgery. Studies show that up to 90 percent of newly ruptured discs do not require surgery for the patient to recover.
Your doctor will try various non-surgical treatments to return you to a more normal lifestyle. Depending on the location and severity of pain, your doctor may try medications, exercises, physical therapy or other treatments, such as injections. If those efforts don't provide the necessary relief, surgery may be an option.
What is surgery like?
The most common surgery is called a discectomy or partial discectomy - only part of the disc is removed in either procedure. Your surgeon will correct the pressure on the spinal nerves. Depending on how much bone material must be removed, the surgeon may also perform a spinal fusion on the remaining vertebrae to stabilize the area.
Most patients go home within 24 hours of the operation and some the same day. Your doctor will give you detailed instructions on what your physical restrictions will be and for how long following surgery. You may also work with a physical therapist before and after surgery. A return to normal activities most often happens in a matter of a few weeks.
Your recovery steps and time may depend on whether you had a lumbar or cervical discectomy.