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Herniated Discs: More Than Just a Pain in the Neck

You’ve heard the saying, “pain in the neck.” Anyone who’s experienced excruciating back pain would probably agree the saying should be changed to “pain in the back.” A common cause of back and neck pain is a herniated disc, also called a slipped disc. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (a division of the National Institutes of Health), for every 1,000 adults, 5 to 20 cases of herniated discs are diagnosed each year.

“Although many associate a herniated disc with back pain, this type of condition can be felt in other areas of the body as well,” according to Jonathan Landsman, MD, a spine surgeon with Banner Brain & Spine. “Depending on which disk is damaged, pain can be felt in the back, shoulder, neck, hand, or other parts of the body connected to the affected part of the spine.”

What is a herniated disc?

Your spine, which runs from your head down to your buttock area, is composed of 26 bones called vertebrae. “In between each of your vertebrae is a disc, which is a hard casing of cartilage fiber with a soft, fluid core,” said Dr. Landsman. The soft inner core contains the spinal fluid that absorbs the shock of your movements and allows the spine to be flexible."

According to Dr. Landsman, when a disc becomes herniated, it means that the soft inside part pushes (herniates) or leaks (ruptures) through the harder outside. The escaped spinal fluid from the disc irritates the nearby nerves, which is what causes the pain or numbness.

Causes of a herniated disc

Herniated discs most often occur in adults between the ages of 30 to 50, and more commonly occur in men. “We often don’t know exactly what caused a herniated disc, but sometimes people who engage in physically strenuous work or activities experience this condition,” said Dr. Landsman.

Possible causes of herniated disc include:

  • Repetitive bending or twisting of the lower back
  • Lifting heavy objects, especially if not done correctly
  • Being in the same position for long periods of time
  • Carrying extra body weight
  • Living an inactive lifestyle

Perhaps surprisingly, another cause of herniated disc is smoking. This is because smoking causes the vessels around the spine and discs to constrict, reducing the ability of important nutrients from reaching the disc.

Symptoms and treatment of a herniated disc

Symptoms of a herniated disc can include pain, numbness or weakness. “The spine connects the different parts of your body together, like your head, chest, shoulders, arms, pelvis and legs, so where you experience symptoms depends on which disc or discs are herniated,” said Dr. Landsman.

For treating your herniated disc, your doctor will likely start with conservative options like physical therapy or passive therapies like massage. Additionally, they might recommend over-the-counter medications, muscle relaxers or injections of anti-inflammatory medications like cortisone to ease pain. If these methods don’t provide relief, surgery to help relieve pressure on the affected nerve may be suggested as a last resort.

If you’re living with back pain and experiencing symptoms that could be related to a herniated disc, an orthopedic doctor or your primary care doctor can do a physical exam to get to the root of what’s causing your pain and set you up with a treatment plan. To learn more about your back and neck pain, take our free back and neck pain assessment.

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