5% of the population will feel the pain of a herniated disc, also known as slipped disc, at some point.
And it's definitely no picnic.
Slipped can occur as a result of an accident, but usually they're something that happens to a lot of people over time.
As you age, the spinal discs start to become less elastic and fluid can begin to leak out of them.
In this article, we'll go over how to treat a herniated disc and what it means for your health.
What is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated or slipped disc occurs when the disc, or shock absorber, between your vertebrae, slips out of place. Doctors believe that this in itself isn't actually painful, but many slipped discs press against nerves in the spinal cord, which can cause mild to severe pain.
The pain may come on suddenly, or in many cases, slowly over time.
What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?
In studies done in individuals who didn't have back pain, it was found that almost half of them had a slipped disc without even realizing it. Therefore, your herniated disc might be asymptomatic. In that case, there is nothing that needs to be done unless it starts causing you pain.
For others, the symptoms are more severe. For some people, the pain comes on rather suddenly and severely. You may also have radiating pain that goes down to your back, your legs, or may go all the way down to your foot.
In more serious cases, you may have numbness or paralysis in your lower back or in your buttocks region. For some people, they may also have issues with the functioning of their bladder and bowels. The latter is a medical emergency, and if you notice this, you should go to your local Emergency Room immediately.
If you have sudden pain in your back, particularly with paralysis, your doctor will likely perform a variety of tests to determine the cause. He or she may conduct a neurological exam to ensure that the pain is coming from your back.
He or she will also check your muscles, ability to feel things like pinpricks and assess your reflexes and how well you walk. For many doctors, this is all that's necessary to diagnose you.
If your doctor isn't positive, he or she may also request X-rays, CT scans or MRIs. You may also have a myelogram, in which you are injected with dye in your spinal fluid and then undergo an X-ray. This can help show if there is nerve damage present and where.
You may also have a nerve test to determine how well the nerves transmit electrical impulses. The doctor can then decide where the injury or herniated disc lies.
How to Treat a Herniated Disc: First of the Line Treatment
In most cases, your doctor will recommend a conservative treatment course. This will be his or her first line of treatment, as for many people, their issues resolve within one to two weeks of a conservative treatment.
A conservative treatment might include over-the-counter anti-inflammatories. You may also take narcotics or opioids if your pain is more severe. These will be taken under the strict supervision of your doctor.
Some people also take anti-convulsants, which is medication to help control seizures. These medications can help mitigate nerve pain.
Some doctors prescribe cortisone injections, which help control inflammation in the area. Most often, they're put directly into the affected area around your injured spinal nerves.
Additionally, you may receive muscle relaxers to help ease spasms and pain related to muscle tension.
If Your Pain Hasn't Resolved Within a Few Weeks
If you're still having pain after a few weeks of conservative treatment, your doctor will likely refer you to physical therapy. You will then do strengthening exercises to help control your pain. A physical therapist can also help by showing you positions to lie in or sit in that can help minimize your pain.
You will likely try this for a couple of weeks, mixed with the oral and injectable medication before any other options are considered.
When Your Pain Doesn't Resolve
Surgery is the last of the line treatment for an individual who has seen little or no improvement in their pain related to a herniated disc.
Doctors may also do surgery sooner than a few weeks of conservative treatment if the patient has difficulty controlling their bowel or bladder, has difficulty walking or experiences weakness and numbness.
The doctor will go in and remove the bulging part of the disc under general anesthesia. In some cases, he or she will remove the entire disc and fuse your vertebrae together so that you can still function and walk without the disc.
There are rare cases in which your doctor may even put in a prosthetic disc.
When to See a Doctor
Although you've just read about how to treat a herniated disc, you shouldn't ignore any pain you feel. If you have severe back pain that interrupts your daily life, it is very important that you seek medical attention as soon as you can. Your doctor can then determine if it is a herniated disc or not, and if so, what course of treatment to take.
For more on how to take care of your spine and the treatments we offer, visit our conditions page.