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What You Need to Know About Herniated Discs

July 24, 2017

What is a herniated disc?


The term herniated disc refers to an unnatural protrusion of the spinal disc between vertebrae. The disc is an intervertebral piece of cartilage (it lies between the bones of the spine) that is smooth, rubber-like and absorbs shock. It allows slight movement of the vertebrae and acts as a ligament that holds everything in the spine together.


Intervertebral discs consist of an outer fibrous ring called the annulus fibrosus, which surrounds the inner gel-like center, the nucleus pulposus. If you imagine a jelly-filled donut, the cake portion of the donut is the annulus fibrosus and the jelly is the nucleus pulposus. However, this is no ordinary donut, it has been fried and re-dipped in batter several times, creating multiple layers of cartilage. These layers are called laminae and together form the annulus fibrosus.


When abnormal force is applied to the intervertebral disc, from an injury or poor posture, the nucleus pulposus can break through the annulus fibrosus, much like jelly being squeezed out of a donut. When this happens, you experience a herniated disc.


A bulging disc is typically less severe than a herniated disc and means the dough-like portion of the disc becomes misshapen but the jelly is still contained inside.


What causes a herniated disc?


A herniated disc can be caused by trauma to the disc, but more often it occurs because of chronic deterioration, typically characterized by poor posture. Poor posture adds extra weight to the front of the intervertebral disc, forcing the nucleus pulposus out toward the spinal cord and nerve fibers.


The good news is poor posture can be easily corrected, which will redirect the forces applied to the intervertebral disc. The bad news is a lot of people have poor posture.


How common is a herniated disc?


Herniate discs are very common and become more common with age. However, not all herniated discs will cause symptoms. Research shows that 30% of 20-year-old’s have disc herniation with no back pain as well as 84% of 80-year old’s.


If a disc herniation is found on an MRI, it is important to understand that the herniated disc may not be the source of your pain and therefore surgery is not always effective in providing pain relief.


How do you know if you have a herniated disc?


There are often warning signs that a disc herniation is about to happen. If you have back pain (even on and off), this may be a sign that the annulus fibrosus is tearing. Once it tears completely, the nucleus pulposus with squeeze through.


If it hurts to bend forward or back, this may also indicate a disc herniation. Often disc herniation is associated with some pain or weakness.  In severe cases, it is possible to lose control of your bowel or bladder function.


Common tests performed by doctors prior to the MRI include laying on your back and raising the effected leg off the table – a straight leg raiser. The doctor may ask you to cough. They may also push down on your head or test the strength of your muscles. It is important to note that testing does not confirm or deny the presence of a herniated disc, it just points the doctor in the most likely direction.  The only way to know for sure is by getting an MRI.


How do you fix a herniated disc?


Many activities can weaken or damage the annulus fibrosus. Poor posture is the most likely contributor, especially when bent forward or looking down for extended periods of time (like looking at a cell phone). Other activities that may add to the risk of herniation include: heavy or improper lifting, pulling, pushing and any twisting actions, especially if done repeatedly. There are even lifestyle choices such as smoking and alcohol abuse, which can weaken the layers of the annulus fibrosus.


In order to get relief and fix your herniated disc, you’ll need to begin by correcting your posture. If you are sitting for a long time in one location, place a rolled-up towel behind your back. Decrease your tablet or phone usage and avoid looking down or being bent forward for extended periods. If you are unsure how to correct your posture, visit a corrective care chiropractor. They will guide you toward better posture and spinal health and help reduce the risk of a disc herniation.


There are many 80-year-old’s with healthy discs, which proves that disc destruction is not inevitable. Do not let anyone tell you that degenerative disc disease is a normal part of aging. It is common to have poor posture and have degenerative disc disease, but it is not normal. The patients with the best posture have the healthiest looking disc, regardless of their age.


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