What is a Herniated Disk?

A herniated disk is a medical condition that involves the disks between the individual bones (vertebrae) that make up the spine. A disk is like a jelly donut. It has a softer center encased in a tougher exterior comprised of connective tissues. A disk can be found between each pair of vertebrae. They are responsible for absorbing shock and providing flexibility within the spine.

A herniated disk can happen if some of the softer part of the disk leaks or pushes out through a tear of its tougher exterior. It can be a result of aging, smoking, improper lifting, sudden pressure, repetitive strenuous activities, and excessive body weight.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disk

When the softer part of the disk pushes out, it can irritate the nearby nerves resulting in pain, numbness, and weakness on the arms or legs.

Pain is the most common symptom of a herniated disk. If it happens in the lower back, the pain can be felt at the lower extremities – the buttocks, thighs, and calves. In some cases, the pain can also be felt in some parts of the feet. If the herniated disk occurs in the neck, the pain is most intense in the shoulders and arms. The pain may be felt in other areas if the spine is moved in different positions or when one coughs.

There can also be numbness/tingling sensation and/or muscle weakness in the part of the body served by the affected nerves.

Diagnosing a Herniated Disk

A medical history and thorough physical exam will help in diagnosing a herniated disk. The physical exam is meant to determine which nerve roots are affected.

To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor may order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to see clear images of the intervertebral disks.

How It Is Treated

Initially, a patient with the herniated disk is recommended for nonsurgical interventions. These include rest, over-the-counter pain medications, muscle relaxants, ice compress, rest, and easing of physical activities.

Only a small percentage of patients with the herniated disk is recommended for surgery. These are patients who don’t find any relief from nonsurgical interventions.

Surgical interventions for herniated disk include lumbar microdiscectomy (if the lower back is affected) and cervical discectomy and fusion (if the neck is affected).