If you follow celebrity news, you may be aware that actress Catherine Heigl recently underwent surgery to repair a herniated disc in her neck. Prior to the surgery, she revealed that excruciating pain caused by the herniated disc made life almost unbearable.
Heigl is not alone. Millions of people in America suffer from back pain that radiates to the shoulders, arms, hips, and legs. Oftentimes that pain is the result of a herniated disc. Herniated discs can occur in both the cervical and lumbar vertebrae. They can occur in the thoracic vertebrae – the back’s midsection – but this is rare.
How It Happens
Discs are soft cushions of tissue that occupy the space between individual vertebrae. They are that which give the spine flexibility. If two vertebrae move too far out of position, a portion of the distance between them can pop out of place, or herniate.
Discs can herniate for no apparent reason. However, there are some pretty routine causes, especially in the lumbar vertebrae:
- Improper lifting techniques
- Being overweight
- Sitting or standing in the same position for too long a time.
People who are overweight and inactive are at a higher risk of experiencing disc herniation. In addition, middle-aged and older men are more likely to suffer a herniated disc. Strenuous activity tends to be the culprit in many cases.
Why It Causes Pain
Pain caused by a herniated disc is generally the result of the affected disc putting pressure on spinal nerves. The pain normally felt in just one side of the body, based on the nerves being compressed. However, it can be accompanied by numbness and weakness as well.
Symptoms of a herniated disc vary depending on whether it occurs in the cervical or lumbar spine. A herniated disc in the lumbar spine generally presents with pain in the lower back that radiates to the buttocks, hips, or legs. Numbness in the legs is also fairly common.
Symptoms of a herniated disc in the cervical spine include pain in the neck as well as a deep pain in the area of the shoulder blade. Patients also complain of pain, numbness, and weakness in the upper arm, forearm, and fingers.
Herniated disc pain can be debilitating because it tends to worsen over time. And because it is caused by the herniated disc putting pressure on spinal nerves, it is a no-win situation for the patient. Every bit of movement only increases the pain. Yet remaining immobile in order to avoid the pain only makes the situation worse.
Herniated Disc Treatments
Treatments for herniated discs very. According to Lone Star Pain Medicine in Weatherford, Texas, some doctors begin with rest and pain medication. NSAIDs, muscle relaxers, and nerve calming medications are commonly utilized. If improvement is not demonstrated, steroid injections may be recommended. Nerve blocks are another course of action that doctors can pursue.
Many cases of herniated disc resolve without the need for surgery. When surgery is necessary, doctors may choose to remove the entire disc or just a portion of it. Note that surgery always carries with it the risk of infection. It might not completely alleviate back pain, either. Some people still cope with long-term pain even after successful surgery.
The spinal column is a very delicate part of the human body. Unfortunately, herniated discs press on spinal nerves and cause excruciating pain that, in some cases, can be debilitating. But with a good pain doctor and a well devised treatment plan, it is possible to find relief. As is the case most of the time, early intervention is key to good management.