Oct 27

Understanding a Herniated Disc


herniated disc in spine

A herniated disc impacts millions of people around the world – not just those persons with the herniated disc, but their family members, friends and work associates they encounter every day. A herniated disc can result from the natural aging process of a person’s spine. However, a herniated disc can also develop after a car accident, slip and fall or work injury.

Before we can understand what a herniated disc is, we have to understand the makeup of the spine. The spinal cord is the mainframe of the human body. Nerves branch off the spinal cord and travel to the rest of the body. These nerves serve as the communicators between the brain and the various parts of the body. The brain can send a message down the spinal cord and out through the nerves to make the muscles move. The nerves also send information such as pain and temperature from the body back to the brain. Thus, the spinal cord and nerves are very important that must be protected. The spine is the protector. The spine is composed of a series of connected bones called “vertebrae.” One of the purposes of the vertebrae is to protect the spinal cord from damage. The vertebrae are connected by a jelly-like disc and two small joints called “facet” joints. The disc is made from strong connective tissues which hold one vertebra to the next and acts as a cushion or shock absorber between the vertebrae. Also, the discs allow for movements of the vertebrae such as bending or rotating your neck and back.

The disc has been described to be like a jelly donut. The outside (cake part of the donut) is made of a tough outer layer is called the “annulus fibrosus” and a gel-like center (the jelly in the donut) is called the “nucleus pulposus.” If the disc is damaged in a car accident or other trauma (or through the natural aging process), the center of the disc may start to lose water content, making the disc less effective as a cushion. Also, the outer layer can tear which allows displacement of the disc’s center (called a herniated or ruptured disc) through a crack in the outer layer (like the squeezing of the jelly in the donut). This causes the disc to enter into the space reserved for the nerves and spinal cord. If the herniated disc in the neck presses on the nerves too much, it can cause pain, numbness, tingling or weakness in the shoulders or arms.

How Do You Know If You Have a Herniated Disc?

Trained doctors are very good at determining whether a patient is suffering from a herniated disc passed on the symptoms the patient has and a thorough physical examination with a focus on weakness, loss of sensation or abnormal reflexes. If the doctor determines that a patient may have a herniated disc, the doctor will typically order a computed tomography (CT) scans or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). The CT and MRI scans provide more detailed pictures of all the spinal elements (vertebrae, discs, spinal cord and nerves) and can identify most disc herniations. Additionally, electrical (nerve conduction) studies may be performed to look for signs or evidence of nerve damage that can result from a disc herniation.

How Is a Herniated Disc Treated?

The North American Spine Society advises that although surgery may be needed, most treating doctors would attempt nonsurgical treatment first to determine if the swelling and nerve irritation can be reduced. (Of course, if the herniated disc is severe enough to be significantly impinging the nerves or spinal cord, surgery would likely be recommended immediately). Non-surgical treatment could include the following:

  1. Rest with a use of the neck collar and anti-inflammatory medications (aspirin, ibuprofen, naproxen, etc.);
  2. Chiropractic care using traction, electric stimulation, hot packs, cold packs and manual (“hands on”) therapy;
  3. Physical Therapy; and
  4. Epidural steroid injection therapy or blocks.

If surgery is needed, a discectomy may be performed to remove of the portion of the herniated disc that is pushing on the nerve. Depending on the location of the herniated disc, the surgeon may make an incision either in the front or back of your neck to reach the spine. If much of the disc has to be removed, a fusion may be required.

If you are experiencing neck or lower back with radiation into your arms or legs, it is important that you talk with your treating doctor about all your symptoms so the existence of a herniated disc can be examined. Treatment for the herniated disc could reduce the pain you are experiencing and the pain you are causing to your family and friends and co-workers because of your pain, restrictions and limitations.


Pedestrian Accident Attorney Matthew E. NoyesPersonal Injury Attorney Matthew Noyes represents persons who suffer a herniated disc or other spine injury from car accidents, motorcycle crashes, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents and other types of personal injury matters. He is a named partner at the Tampa Bay law firm of Perenich Caulfield Avril Noyes – one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Pinellas County. Call Attorney Matthew Noyes now at 727-796-8282 or complete the form on this page or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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