The discs situated between the vertebrae that make up the spinal column are hardy. They provide the nerves that travel through and out of the spine the space they need to function properly. These discs are durable, but they are also composed of relatively soft matter so they can act as virtual shock absorbers for the spine. This means that they can, on occasion, sustain damage.
If a disc is torn, it may also be referred to as a herniated disc. This problem may occur in a patient of any age as a result of direct injury to the back. However, what we typically see is tearing that has occurred over time; the result of wear and tear over many years of living. When it does occur, the affected individual may experience muscle weakness and cramping, shooting pain in the back and lower extremities, and a sensation of pins-and-needles.
Treating the Torn Disc
The treatment approach depends on the severity of symptoms. First, we may suggest conservative methods. The objective in treatment is to manage comfort and inflammation. Long before most people call their doctor for their back problem, they instinctively manage their condition with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen, or pain relievers such as acetaminophen. Other recommendations include lifestyle modifications such as sitting and standing with good posture, losing weight, if needed, and avoiding tobacco.
Medical care for a torn disc may include prescription anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy to increase range of motion and comfortable flexibility. Strengthening the muscles in the back means more support for the spine, which can mean less pain. Some people find relief in yoga, some through massage or acupuncture. Some people use a combination of hot and cold therapy and other modalities. Because pain is subjective, the treatment varies from person to person.
When Surgery is Necessary
Surgery may be appropriate if a torn disc causes:
- Debilitating pain that does not improve with conservative therapies.
- Collapse of the torn disc and severe erosion of surrounding cartilage, resulting in persistent, severe pain.
- Severe weakness in the legs, coinciding with bowel or bladder incontinence. These symptoms indicate severe spinal compression that requires prompt medical care.
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