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Herniated Disc

What is a herniated disc and is there anything we can do about it? To understand what a herniated disc is we should first learn about a healthy/normal disc.  And yes, we can do something about it.


What is a disc? 

The intervertebral disc (IVD) is so named as it is a disc shaped structure that sits between two vertebrae, the bones that make up our spine.  To simplify the anatomy, imagine the disc as a jelly donut.  It has a tough outer layer that contains a gel-like inner layer. The outer layer, known as the annulus fibrosus, is structured like a ligament just like those in the knee or shoulder. The inner layer, nucleus pulposus, is a gel like substance that loves water and pulls it in from the bones above and below. The 'jelly' of the donut!

Doctor showing anatomical spine in clinic

What is a disc herniation?

When the conditions are right, or wrong in this instance, the inner gel like material can bulge and then eventually push through the outer later, or herniate, into the spinal canal.  This can cause pain in the back and buttocks, pain down the leg, as well numbness and tingling in the leg or foot. 

How does a disc herniate?

A disc herniation can occur following prolonged bouts of being flexed forward(sitting slumped in a car or at a desk) or when bending forward gets combined with rotation which adds an additional stress to the disc(think shoveling snow), you may even feel a pop or sensation of tearing during this motion.  Our risk for injuring the disc goes up if we have lived a lifetime of inactivity or poor body mechanics leading to wearing down and weakening of the outer layer, then when enough force is applied at the right time, that inner material can push out the back. 


What is the first thing I can do when I herniate my disc?

This can be a scary thing to experience, but there are things you can do if you find yourself in this situation. 

The worst thing to do would be to sit in a slumped position like in a recliner, this puts your spine in a position that further pushes on the herniation. 

Instead, an effort should be made to get on your stomach, this puts the muscles on slack, takes physical tension off the nervous system, and brings the torn edges of the outer layer together allowing it to begin healing.  

Can physical therapy help with a herniated disc?

Physical therapy and conservative care can help, surgery isn’t always necessary in this situation.  Seek timely care and an evaluation of you can be performed to develop an individualized plan of care for you.  There are conservative treatments including positioning, exercise, and manual therapy techniques to minimize additional stress to the disc and even promote healing to allow you to get back on your feet and restore the quality of your life.