Between the bones of your spine lie small, spongy discs that serve as shock absorbers to cushion the bones and keep the spine flexible. When healthy, they have a tough, outer shell which protects a jelly-like material on the inside. When you experience a spine injury, or simply when you become older and you experience normal wear and tear, or even when you have a spinal disease, these discs can slip, rupture, or break, causing what is called a ruptured or herniated disc.
When you rupture a disc, the ruptured disc itself isn’t what typically causes any pain. But when the disc places pressure on any nerve roots or the spinal cord, it can cause significant pain to the back or surrounding areas. If there is no pressure to any roots, you may feel just a dull backache or nothing at all. If there is pressure to the nerves, the pain will travel to whichever area that nerve controls. For example, if pressure is placed on nerves traveling down the leg, then pain will likely occur from the location of the disc itself all the way down the leg. Numbness in the area can occur as well. When the ruptured disc is located in the lower back, a condition called sciatica may develop, which is basically the name for the pain, tingling, weakness, or numbing sensation felt from the sciatic nerve, a large nerve that runs down the leg.
A variety of things can cause a ruptured disc. Ruptured discs can be a normal part of aging, especially for those between the ages of 35-45 who also perform manual labor or drive motor vehicles frequently. Eventually, the spinal discs begin to lose fluid, which makes for less cushioning and a higher risk of the disc cracking and breaking. Herniated discs occur most in the lower back of the spine, and a sudden heavy strain or twisting to this area can force the disc to crack and leak fluid. Bad habits such as improper lifting can also be a culprit.
Ruptured discs can be diagnosed typically just through examination, but x-rays, CT scans and MRIs may be ordered to rule out any underlying spine damage in conjunction with the ruptured discs. Ruptured discs tend to heal on their own between one to six months, and there are two goals in the healing process: to relieve pain and weakness in the leg and back muscles, and to prevent further injury. A bit of rest during the more severe moments of pain is fine, but gradual to moderate activity is recommended to keep the muscles strong. Medication can be prescribed to keep pain and inflammation under control, as well as the use of heating pads or ice packs. A doctor or physical therapist can also recommend specific exercises to help reduce pain or strengthen muscles. If nerve or muscle damage continues without any relief or noticeable healing, then surgery may be an option. This happens rarely, and non-surgical treatments are almost always used first.