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Your spine is made up of strong bones (vertebrae) and spinal discs. These discs act like spacers between the bones to stop them from rubbing together, and they give the spine flexibility and mobility.
Intervertebral discs are very strong. However, like any other body part, they’re subject to injury. Here’s what you should know about disc injuries and what treatment options are available.
WHAT ARE THE MOST COMMON TYPES OF DISC INJURIES?
All spinal discs have a tough, fibrous outer membrane and an elastic, gel-like center. When there’s damage to either the membrane or the center, you could experience pain and nerve irritation.
The type of disc injury depends on the severity of the damage to the intervertebral disc. The most common types of disc injuries, however, are a herniated disc or a bulging disc. Although the terms “bulging disc” and “herniated disc” are often used interchangeably, they are different disc injuries.
A disc “bulges” when the gel-like core starts to push against the membrane. The outer membrane hasn’t ruptured and there’s no gel leaking into surrounding structures.
Sometimes, the outer membrane ruptures and the gel leaks into the spinal canal. This is known as a disc herniation or herniated disc.
Disc injuries can also wear down over time as part of the aging process. This is known as degenerative disc disease. Other spinal conditions linked to disc injuries include:
WHAT CAUSES DISC INJURIES?
Disc injuries are more common as you age; discs start to become more fragile as they lose their water content over time.
Certain movements or trauma can also cause a disc injury, like twisting or lifting heavy objects. Athletes and people with physically demanding jobs may be more at risk of developing disc injuries like a herniated disc or bulging disc over time.
WHAT DOES A DAMAGED DISC FEEL LIKE?
Disc injuries are quite common, and injuries such as a mild disc bulge may not cause noticeable symptoms. A damaged disc can, however, put pressure on the nerves and muscles around it. Symptoms of a disc injury include:
• Back or neck pain
• Pain radiating down the leg or arm
• Burning, tingling, or shooting pains in the arm or leg
• Muscle weakness or numbness
The symptoms depend on the disc affected. However, seek urgent medical attention if you have:
• Tingling or numbness in the genital area
• Sciatica or pain in both legs
• Changes to bowel and/or bladder habits
• Sudden increase in pain and muscle weakness
• Numbness in the buttocks, area around the rectum, or inner thighs (the “saddle” area)
These symptoms could indicate a more severe nerve compression which should be treated urgently.
CAN A DAMAGED DISC HEAL?
Yes. Most of the time, a disc injury heals with conservative treatment including:
• Pain medication
• Physical therapy
• Steroid injection
At the Interventional Spine & Surgery Group, we will usually recommend non-surgical treatment options first unless there’s an urgent medical need to repair the disc surgically e.g. with disc replacement surgery.
HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE FOR AN INJURED DISC TO HEAL?
Every disc injury is slightly different. However, disc injuries normally resolve within 4 to 6 weeks with conserative care. Even if you’re still experiencing symptoms beyond this timeframe, your symptoms should resolve within a few months.
Disc injury symptoms which persist beyond three months, or a worsening disc injury may require more intensive treatment, such as disc replacement surgery. Your specialist can give you more advice on the treatment options available for your condition.
HOW DO YOU TREAT DISC INJURIES?
As mentioned, most disc injuries heal spontaneously. But when symptoms don’t respond to conservative treatment, surgical options may be considered. This may include a discectomy, in which the damaged part of the disc is removed, a disc replacement, or a laminectomy or fusion, which adds stability to the spinal cord.
The treatment depends on the location of the disc. For example, you might need a lumbar disc replacement for a disc injury in the lower back.
For help with a disc injury and to discuss your treatment options, contact our specialist team today.