Symptoms of a herniated disc:
A bulging or herniated disc in your lower back can cause pain into your buttock, down the back of the leg, or into your calf and foot. The pain may shoot down your leg if you cough, sneeze, or bend forward too quickly. You may also have numbness or tingling into the body part served by the irritated nerve. The muscles that are innervated by the nerve may get weak, causing you to stumble or lose strength.
How this happens:
The discs are the pads between the vertebrae. They act as shock absorbers to distribute the load from things like bending, sitting, and everyday activities. They have a tough outer ring (called the annulus) and a squishy gel like material in the middle (called the nucleus). If you get a tear in the outer fibers, the jelly like nucleus will get squeezed toward the back of the disc. This is where the spinal nerves and spinal cord are located. When a disc gets injured it can either: 1) bulge 2) herniate. A bulge is where the gel pushes toward the spinal nerve, but does not rupture or push thru the annulus. A disc herniation is where the gel like material pushes thru the outer fibers.
Disc bulges are common, and anyone over 50 years old likely has one or two of these in their spine. Bulges can cause pain by irritating the outer fibers of the disc, which causes an inflammatory response around the nerve. Fortunately, bulges respond well to conservative care.
Disc herniations are more serious and generally cause worse symptoms since there can be both irritation and direct pressure around the nerve. These are sometimes called a “slipped disc”.
There is one other condition that fortunately is rare. This is when part of the herniated disc breaks off and lodges somewhere on the nerve or spinal cord. This is called a “free” or “sequestered” fragment. This usually requires surgery.
Note: this is a simplified explanation. Deciding what is a bulge and what is a herniation is based on MR findings.
Treatment for herniated and bulging discs:
Most disc problems respond well to chiropractic care, exercise, and lifestyle changes (less sitting and proper lifting). For those that don’t, we have a spinal traction unit that has been very effective in many of our patients.
Spinal traction (also called non-surgical spinal decompression) is performed using a machine that gently stretches the spine and removes pressure on the discs and muscles. It gently cycles thru a series of pulling and resting phases so that your muscles don’t resist the tension. Traction won’t miraculously cause the bulging disc material to resorb or “go back” into the main part of the disc. What it most likely does is help with muscle spasm and nerve irritation. And once this has improved, you will feel better. Now you can work on strengthening your back to prevent it from happening in the future.
When the new generation of lumbar traction units first came out, they got a bad reputation by doctors who promised amazing results-which you could only get thru endless and expensive visits. In our office, we generally see improvement in 8-10 visits. If you are not getting better in that time, spinal decompression may not work for you. And if that is the case, we will send you out for a consult with a specialist such as a neurosurgeon or physiatrist.