A herniated disk occurs when one of the spinal disks that cushion your vertebrae is damaged. The softer inner core is supported and surrounded by a tougher exterior, but that outer shell can crack due to injury or overuse. The resulting bulge can change your spinal alignment.
Pain in the back is symptom of a damaged disk, but it’s actually more common for the pain to be in the buttocks, legs, or arms instead. This is because the bulging disk tends to compress one or more of the nerves in the spine, resulting in pain that is distant from the actual damage in the back. This can make it a little tricky to determine if it’s a slipped disk or other nerve problem causing your pain. Numbness and tingling often accompany the pain, along with muscle weakness in severe cases.
There are a number of risk factors and causes for a disk herniation, with occupational causes being the most common. While disk herniation can be the result of acute trauma due to improper lifting technique, or lifting a heavy object with a twisting or turning motion, which puts undue force on the spine, a fair number of cases are due to repetitive spinal stress. These disk herniations tend to be most common in the lower, or lumbar spine. Additionally, disk herniation can develop with constant stress on the spine with vigorous strength training, especially in individuals with improper technique, or those who have suddenly increased workout volume. Age is also a risk factor in the development of a disk herniation as with age, as disk degeneration, or loss of fluid in the disks, tends to be more prevalent. In addition, lifestyle factors play a large role in the development of herniated disks. Being overweight and having a sedentary lifestyle or job can greatly increase the risk of a disk herniation as these can cause significant stress on the spine and muscle weakness, leading to spinal damage.
Most people manage their herniated disc symptoms with a combination of pain medication, either over-the-counter or prescription, and physical therapy techniques like icing or bracing the affected area.
In severe cases where muscle weakness is debilitating or the patient loses control of their bladder and bowels, surgery is prescribed to remove the pressure on the nerves. While this surgery is often offered to patients only experiencing pain, it’s not always effective in those cases.
Given the number of risk factors and causes for disk herniation, there are multiple steps that can be taken to help prevent its occurrence. Addressing occupational or activity related factors that lead to disk herniation is essential. Ensuring proper support in occupations where heavy lifting is common is very helpful in preventing a herniated disk. Additionally, maintaining proper lifting technique is important in preventing stress on the spine. Making sure to mitigate lifestyle factors that can contribute to the development of a herniated disk is also important. Maintaining an exercise and strengthening regimen as well as weight loss are very effective in reducing stress on the spine and preventing conditions that can lead to premature disc degeneration and spinal injury.