The vertebrae are connected by strong ligaments called intervertebral discs. Each disc has a strong outer ring of fibers (called the annulus fibrosus) and a soft, jelly-like center, called the nucleus pulposus. The annulus can tear or rupture anywhere around the disc.
If it tears and no disc material is ruptured, this is called an annular tear and can be extremely painful as the outer fibers carry pain signals. This tear will heal with scar tissue over time but is more prone to future tears and injury. If the annulus tears and the center nucleus can squeeze out, a piece of the disc from the center or outside portion can break off and extend outward.
A disc herniation is the displacement of disc material beyond the normal confines of the disc space. The terms disc protrusion, disc bulge, disc herniation, ruptured disc, and slipped disc all mean the same thing and imply that disc material has left the normal disc space.
Herniation means squeezing out. When disc material herniates, it can put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerves, causing numbness and weakness along the nerve. When the nerve root is inflamed, the added pressure may also cause shooting or sharp pain along the pathway of the nerve.
Symptoms of a herniated disc can include pain that travels down one or both arms or legs, numbness and tingling in the extremities, muscle weakness, and loss of reflexes. A wide degree of pain is also possible. People may not have neck or back pain when they have a herniated disc, so it’s important to notice the symptoms and tell your healthcare provider about any of the symptoms above.
Treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms and the amount of nerve damage present. Most disc herniations improve between six weeks and three months after the injury. Our Ogden Clinic spine specialists may use a combination of medications, physical therapy, or epidural steroid injections (ESI) for patients with disc herniation.
The good news is that, when properly identified and treated, most patients will improve with non-surgical care. For the few where nerve compression remains too much, minimally invasive surgical interventions are usually highly successful in eliminating the symptoms and allowing people to return to a full and active lifestyle. Surgery may be recommended if there is unbearable pain, unacceptable or progressive weakness, evidence of spinal cord compression, or bowel malfunction.