What is a herniated disc?

Each disc in your spine is made up of two main parts. The main job of the outer portion of the disc, called the annulus fibrosus, is to help facilitate the rubbery cushion’s range of motion. The soft, inner portion of the disc -- the nucleus pulposus -- is what makes the disc an effective shock absorber.

In disc herniation, the soft fibers inside the disc begin to tear, allowing the soft spongy nuclear material to travel towards the outside of the disc. That causes the exterior portion of the disc to protrude or bulge. If the damage that created a bulged disc continues, the disc will herniate, or rupture, allowing some of its soft interior to be forced out through the crack in its tough exterior.

What causes the pain?

The lumbar spine in the lower back is the most frequent site for herniated discs, but they’re also fairly common in the cervical spine of the neck. Although doctors once thought that discs didn’t have pain receptors, extensive research has revealed that they contain an abundance of such nerve endings. For this reason, any tearing or trauma to the disc’s exterior can be extremely painful.

Another source of disc pain stems from the way the herniated interior material impinges, or pushes, on the nearby nerve. Because the nerves that originate in your spine branch out into the various parts of your body, you may feel pain in places that don’t seem to be related to a disc problem in your spine. If you have a herniated disc in your lower back, you may feel intense pain in your buttocks, thigh, and calf. A herniated disc in the neck can cause shoulder or arm pain. Patients often describe this radiating pain as shooting, shocking, or electric.

What does treatment entail?

Prescription pain relief and muscle relaxants can’t correct the nerve compression caused by a herniated disc, but a variety of techniques can improve joint motion. These include:

  • Manual manipulations and adjustments
  • Targeted exercises
  • Spinal decompression

What is spinal decompression?

Spinal decompression is a treatment in which the spine is gently stretched, in a relaxed, controlled manner to create negative pressure inside the disc. This pressure change allows the free flow of fluid and nutrients into the disc, which promotes healing.

Each spinal decompression treatment lasts for about 20 minutes, and most patients need somewhere between 18 and 30 treatments, depending on the severity of the herniation. Patients who undergo spinal decompression therapy are also encouraged to incorporate core strengthening exercises into their daily routines.

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