The small vertebrae that make up our spinal column are cushioned by small disks of rubbery tissue. These disks, which help ease mobility and prevent our bones from rubbing against each other, are softer in the middle and tougher along the outer wall. Over time these disks can deteriorate, with the softer, interior tissue breaking through the exterior in a condition called a slipped, ruptured, or herniated disk.
Herniated disks are not uncommon, usually impacting adults. Your risks of developing a herniated back increase if you have a physically demanding job that requires significant lifting, pushing, pulling, or bending, if you have a family history of herniated disks, or if you are carrying excess weight.
Herniated disks can put pressure on the nerves surrounding our spine, causing pain, weakness, or numbness in the back, arms, or legs. More serious symptoms include difficulty controlling your bladder or trouble standing and walking. However, depending on the severity you may have a slipped disk but experience no symptoms.
To diagnose a herniated disk, first your provider will ask you questions about your medical history and conduct a physical examination, feeling your back and checking for tenderness. Neurological tests such as reflexes, stimulation, and strength activities may also be employed.
Your provider may request additional testing to rule out other causes, better evaluate nerve damage, and get a more complete picture of your spine condition.
Depending on the magnitude of your discomfort, your provider may advise over-the-counter medications and other prescription medications, including steroid injections. These may help reduce the swelling around the injured disk and decrease your pain. Physical therapy and targeted exercises have also proven to be effective in easing pain and expediting recovery.
Surgery, though rarely needed, is a last resort. A surgeon may remove the disk, replace it with an artificial disk, or fuse together the two vertebrae surrounding the herniated disk.
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