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If you have persistent back pain, especially if it’s located in your lower back, you may be concerned that your pain is the result of a herniated disc. Try the "Do I have a herniated disc quiz" to find out if you have this problem.
Herniated discs are very common and can occur in anyone at any age. They are not a sign of weakness or bad posture and they do not necessarily require surgery. But how do you know if that’s what’s causing your pain? What is a herniated disc, and how does it differ from other back conditions? Let’s take a closer look at this common condition.
What is a herniated disc?
A disc is a soft tissue structure that acts as a shock absorber between your spinal bones (called vertebrae). When one or more disc herniate, it means they push outward through the surrounding tissues. In many cases, a herniated disc can be treated without surgery.
A disc herniation usually occurs on the side of the spine, but it can also occur in the back, toward the center of the spine. If one of the discs in your lumbar spine herniates through the outer layer of your spine, it’s called a lumbar disc herniation.
A lumbar disc herniation is the most common type of herniation. It occurs in the following way: As your spine bends forward from a standing position, the disc is compressed and the pressure on the disc increases. If the pressure becomes too great, the disc ruptures, or tears. Then the material inside the disc — mostly water, some protein, and a little fat — is squeezed out through the tear. This causes the material to push against the back side of the adjacent vertebrae, compressing the nerves.
How do you know if you have a herniated disc?
The first step in determining if you have a herniated disc is to determine your level of pain. You should be able to differentiate your level of pain from that of your usual pain.
The next step is to determine the location of your pain. For example, pain that radiates down your legs suggests sciatica, which can be caused by a herniated disc.
If you experience numbness or tingling in your leg, this is also a sign of a herniated disc. Another place to feel for pain is at the back of your neck. If you find pain here, it may be a sign of a herniated disc.
Other causes of back pain and neck pain
A herniated disc is not the only cause of back and/or neck pain. Other possible culprits include:
- Muscle strain - Muscles are responsible for holding up the spine and transferring the weight of the rest of your body to the ground. When they are overworked, they can become strained and painful, even leading to a muscle spasm.
- Tendonitis - Tendons are the elastic tissues that connect muscle to bone. They are attached to movable joints, like your knee, and they make those joints move easier. When they become inflamed, they can cause pain, stiffness, and swelling.
- Disc degeneration - As we age, our discs naturally degenerate, which can cause pain. This is especially common among older adults.
Treatment for herniated discs
- Physical therapy - This type of treatment is meant to alleviate pain by improving mobility and range of motion in your joints. It also focuses on strengthening muscles and improving your posture to help you manage your pain long-term.
- Medication - It’s important not to self-medicate, but some over-the-counter medications can provide relief, like acetaminophen. Other over-the-counter medications, such as anti-inflammatory pain relievers and muscle relaxers, can also be helpful.
- Surgery - While it’s never recommended to rush into surgery, surgery may be necessary if you have failed physical therapy, medication, or other conservative treatments. Surgery can only take place once the herniation has been verified.
If you think you might have a herniated disc, it’s important to get to the bottom of it so you can start the right treatment. Your doctor will likely perform an examination to help confirm your diagnosis. If you do have a herniated disc, your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs.
While you may experience some discomfort, you don’t have to live with it. With the right treatment, you can learn how to manage your pain so it doesn’t rule your life.