The discs of the spinal column, which lie in between the individual vertebrae, are comprised of two main parts: an inner core containing the nucleus pulposus, and an outer wall known as the annulus fibrosis. Occasionally the outer wall deteriorates or develops a tear, and the nucleus pulposus leaks out into that outer wall, causing the disc to bulge or protrude. When this occurs, the traumatized disc may press against adjacent nerves and result in pain for the patient. Known as a herniated disc, severe back pain can ensue from this condition, and that pain has a tendency to spread throughout the body if the damaged disc compresses one or more spinal nerves.
Acute pain, both sharp and jarring in nature and which worsens as it moves to the lower extremities, is a hallmark symptom of a herniated disc. Oftentimes a wrenching feeling in the back may precede the pain, a result of the ripping of the annulus fibrosis.
Patients experiencing the pain and discomfort of a herniated disc find themselves severely limited in terms of mobility and flexibility—walking will be painful—and there is a tendency to lean to one side or the other when attempting to bend over at the waist.
The best way to arrive at a diagnosis of a herniated disc is through an MRI or CT scan, both of which provide clear images of the affected disc and where the source of pressure on the nerves is located.
Treatment for a herniated disc most commonly takes the form of rest combined with pain-relieving and muscle-relaxing medication and, in some cases, physical therapy. Surgery for a herniated disc is rare, but may be necessary if an individual doesn’t respond favorably to the more conservative forms of treatment.