Humans are pretty amazing when it comes to taking things for granted. That seems to be especially true when it comes to our physical bodies. We use our fingers for hundreds of different functions throughout the day without giving them a thought, but, get a paper cut on one of them, and we suddenly have a very pronounced appreciation for what it was like to not have shooting pain every time we touch something. A prime example of this, and one more serious is our spinal column. It supports pretty much everything we do and every move we make, yet we simply take that for granted until something goes wrong.
The spinal column is made up of a series of 26 vertebrae, separated and cushioned by discs. These discs have soft, jelly-like centers that allow them to function as shock absorbers. When we move, these discs protect the vertebrae from being damaged by the stress placed on them during activities like walking, running, lifting and other types of jarring movement. As we age or through an injury, one of the more common things that can go wrong is that a crack can form in the disc and the gelatinous center can push through the outer layer, resulting in disc herniation.
Commonly referred to as a “slipped disc,” disc herniation can be accompanied by significant pain or little to none at all. You may know the exact moment it happens, if related to lifting something heavy or if there is some sort of accident, but, if the damage is the result of the general wear and tear that comes with aging, it may not be possible to know just when the herniation occurred. Although in general, herniated discs are thought to be related to accidental injuries, genetic predisposition, and aging, there are risk factors that can increase the likelihood of occurrence. Some of these include:
- Repetitive motion, such as lifting, bending, pulling or twisting
- Not getting adequate exercise
- Using back muscles to lift instead of leg muscles
- Compromised oxygen supply from smoking leading to more rapid disc degeneration
- Additional stress from being overweight
- Gender-related, men, aged 30 to 50, are statistically the most susceptible
- Prolonged activities, like driving a vehicle, for extended periods of time
For whatever cause, many people will struggle with disc herniation at some point during their lifetime. The good news is that there are ever-increasing options for treatment and nearly all, 80-90%, with acute disc herniation improve without the need for surgery. Recommendations from health care professionals include different types of treatment, which may include some combination of anti-inflammatory medications to reduce swelling, over-the-counter pain medications, physical therapy, epidural steroid injections, spinal manipulation, yoga, acupuncture or massage.
If other methods are unsuccessful in restoring movement and eliminating pain, surgery to fuse the vertebrae has traditionally been the next step. Today, however, there is a newer procedure that involves the use of an artificial disc. Disk replacement surgery replaces the herniated or ruptured disk joint with an artificial one made of metal or plastic. Will disc replacement surgery one day become as popular as knee or hip replacements? That remains to be seen, but it is proving at least as effective as fusion surgery, so there is every reason to hope for good results.