When you experience back pain that shoots down your leg, everyday activities become difficult or even intolerable. One cause of back pain is a herniated disk, sometimes called a slipped disk or a ruptured disk. Your spine is made up of bones (vertebrae) cushioned by small oval pads of cartilage or disks consisting of a tough outer layer (annulus) and a soft inner layer (nucleus).
When a herniated disk occurs, a small portion of the nucleus pushes out through a tear in the annulus into the spinal canal. This can irritate a nerve and result in pain, numbness or weakness in your neck or back as well as your leg or arm, depending on where in the spine the disk is herniated.
The symptoms of a herniated disk can be alleviated with various conservative care modalities such as chiropractic, massage therapy, physical therapy, pain management and/or acupuncture. These modalities may significantly reduce the intensity and length of time you suffer with this condition.
The need for surgery is generally a last resort for treatment of a herniated disk unless your quality of life is significantly compromised.
Signs & Symptoms
You may have a herniated disk without knowing it. Herniated and bulging disks sometimes show up on spinal MRI’s of people who have no symptoms of a disk problem. This is most likely because the herniated portion of the disk is not in contact with or is not compressing a spinal nerve root or the spinal cord.
However, symptoms triggered by a herniated disk usually appear after some defining event (trauma, repetitive stress, violent sneeze, twisting and turning injury) and become progressively worse over time. These symptoms may begin with back pain, neck pain or stiffness that can later manifest in the affected extremity (arm or leg) as pain, numbness or tingling.
The most common signs and symptoms of a herniated disk are:
- Sciatica a radiating, aching pain, sometimes with tingling and numbness, that starts in your buttock and extends down the back or side of one leg
- Pain, numbness or weakness in your lower back and one leg, or in your neck, shoulder, chest or arm
- Low back pain or leg pain that worsens when you sit, cough or sneeze
Intervertebral disks act as springs, absorbing shock and allowing bending movements of your spine. They assist your spinal muscles in protecting your spine from the stress of everyday tasks and heavy lifting. When a herniated disk occurs, a small portion of the nucleus pushes out through a tear in the annulus into the spinal canal.
This situation can cause irritation of one of the spinal nerves. Disk herniation is most often the result of a gradual, aging-related wear and tear called degeneration of the disks. As you age, your spinal disks lose some of their water content. That makes them less flexible and more prone to tearing or rupturing with even a minor strain or twist.
Most people can't pinpoint the exact cause of their herniated disk. Sometimes, using your back muscles instead of your leg and thigh muscles to lift large, heavy objects can lead to a herniated disk, as can twisting and turning while lifting. A traumatic event such as an automobile accident, a fall or a blow to the back can cause a herniated disk.