Spinal disks, which sit between vertebrae and act as shock absorbers in the back, are kind of like jelly donuts. They “have a tough, fibrous outer layer and a gel-filled center,” said Dustin Hess, a certified physician assistant in orthopedic surgery at Marshfield Clinic.
A disk herniates when its exterior ruptures, causing the gel center to push through the tough outer layer. Unfortunately, the comparison between spinal disks and jelly donuts is strictly visual. When filling leaks out of a jelly donut, the result is delicious. When gel leaks from a spinal disk, the result is pain.
“A herniated disk leads to pressure on, and irritation of, the nearby nerves that exit the spine and supply the rest of the body,” Hess said.
Hess said symptoms associated with a herniated disk depend on the location of the herniation. With a herniated disk in the low back, which is the most common location, you’ll often experience symptoms in the buttocks and legs. If you have a herniated disk in the neck, you’re more likely to feel symptoms in your arms and shoulders.
Symptoms include back or neck pain; numbness, tingling or weakness in the body parts affected by the herniation; and pain radiating up and down the legs or arms.
What causes a disk to herniate?
Hess said as people age, disks become less flexible. As disks become less flexible, they are more likely to rupture. Lifting with poor technique, being overweight and repetitive stress also can cause herniation.
Herniated disks often will resolve without serious medical intervention, and surgery is rarely needed.
“Initially, conservative treatment is going to be best,” Hess said.
Conservative treatment includes controlling pain with medication, and staying active to keep back muscles strong and keep the joints in your spine from stiffening. Over-the-counter medication like Aleve, which helps reduce inflammation, is a good option. Hess said it’s important to take anti-inflammatory medications consistently to realize their full benefits, but noted you should discuss any medications you plan to take with your provider.