Herniated Disc: Symptoms, Causes, Stretches, and Treatments

December 4, 2020
11 Minute Read
11 Minute Read
December 4, 2020

The spine is one of, if not, the most important part of your body. It is responsible for giving your body its structure and support. Without your spine, you will not be to stand up straight or keep yourself upright. Your spine allows you to freely move around and bend with flexibility.

It also serves as the cage and protection for a long column of nerves known as the spinal cord. The spinal cord connects your brain with the rest of your body, allowing you to control all your movements.

Needless to say that without your spinal cord, moving any part of your body will be impossible. Your organs will not function as well. That is why it is very important to take care of your spine and keep it healthy.

Table of Contents

Your spine is made up of 24 small bones called vertebrae. These bones are stacked on top of each other to create what we know to be the spinal column. A gel-like cushion can be found in between each vertebra. This gel is known as a disc.

The disc acts as a shock absorber and absorbs the pressure and the force that you take when moving around to keep the bones from rubbing with each other. Each vertebra is connected to the others by a group of ligaments.

These ligaments connect bone to bone. Tendons connect bone to the muscle. Likewise, some tendons connect muscles to vertebrae.

The spinal column also has real joints similar to the knee or elbow or any other joints, called facet joints. The facet joints link the vertebrae together and give them the flexibility to move against each other

What Is A Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc refers to a complication with the disc in between each vertebra in your spine. A rubbery cushion is found in between each vertebra of your spine.

The disc, composed of a jelly-like interior and a rubbery exterior, acts as a shock absorber and absorbs the pressure and the force that you take when moving around to keep the bones from rubbing with each other. A herniated disc happens when some of the inner parts of the disc push out and causes a tear in the outer part.

A herniated disc can happen at any part of the spine. The herniated disc can then irritate a nearby nerve. Signs include pain, numbness, or weakness in your arms or legs, depending on where the herniated disc is located.

Many people who experience a herniated disc have no symptoms from it. Surgery is usually not necessary to relieve the problem.

Symptoms

Most herniated disks occur in the lower back, although they can also occur in the neck. Signs and symptoms depend on where the disk is situated and whether the disk is pressing on a nerve. They usually affect one side of the body.

Most cases of a herniated disc usually occur in the lower back area, but can also happen in the neck. Signs and symptoms depend on the location of the herniated disc and whether or not it is pressing down on a nerve. Herniated discs usually only affect one side of the body.

Arm or leg pain

You will most likely feel pain in your buttocks, thigh, and calf if the herniated disc is situated in your lower back. Feeling pain in your foot is also a possibility. Herniated discs located in the neck will most likely cause pain in the area of your shoulders and arms. The pain might shoot through your arm or leg when coughing, sneezing, or moving into certain positions. The pain is often described as sharp or a burning sensation.

Numbness or tingling

Those who have a herniated disc often complain about numbness or tingling in the area that the affected nerve is serving.

Weakness

The muscles which are connected to the nerve that is affected by the herniated disc will usually weaken. This may cause you to stumble or affect your other actions such as lifting or holding objects.

A herniated disc can also come without a symptom. You may be clueless about it until you see it in a spinal image

When to see a doctor

Pain that travels down to your arm and leg is enough reason to contact your doctor. Numbness, tingling, or weakness are also things to look out for. Contact your doctor immediately if any of the following apply to you.

Causes

The herniation of a disc is commonly associated with gradual, aging-related wear and tear known as disc degeneration. The discs supporting your spine become less flexible and more prone to tearing and rupturing with even the slightest strain or twist as you get older.

Most people can't pinpoint the cause of their herniated disk. Sometimes, using your back muscles instead of your leg and thigh muscles to lift heavy objects can lead to a herniated disk, as can twisting and turning while lifting. Rarely, a traumatic event such as a fall or a blow to the back is the cause.

Risk factors

Factors that can increase your risk of a herniated disk include:

Weight

Excess body weight will put more pressure on your back and your disc. Excess weight is usually brought about by poor diet and not exercising enough.

Occupation

People with physically demanding jobs have a greater risk of back problems. Jobs that require or have a lot of repetitive lifting, pulling, pushing, bending sideways and twisting are almost a surefire way to injure your disc.

Genetics

Some people, in rare cases, inherit a predisposition to developing a herniated disc.

Smoking

Smoking is believed to lower the oxygen supply to the disc, which causes it to deteriorate a lot more quickly.

Complications

Your spinal cord ends just above your waist. A group of long nerve roots resembling a horse’s tail is what continues down through the spinal canal. This is also known as cauda equina.

Very rarely does the herniated disc affect the entire spinal canal, including all the nerves of the cauda equina. Emergency surgery, as rarely, might be required to avoid further damage and permanent weakness or paralysis.

You Should Seek Immediate Medical Attention When...

Worsening symptoms

Contact your doctor if the pain, numbness, or weakness increases to the point that they hamper your daily activities.

Bladder or bowel dysfunction

Cauda equina syndrome is a condition that can cause incontinence or difficulty urinating even with a full bladder. If you experience any of these symptoms, call your doctor.

Saddle anesthesia

This progressive loss of sensation affects the areas that would touch a saddle — the inner thighs, back of legs, and the area around the rectum.

How To Prevent/Treat A Herniated Disc

To help prevent a herniated disc, do the following:

Exercise

Exercising and strengthening your core muscles will take a lot of the load off your spine. A strong core will consist of muscles that work together to support your body. This will make you less susceptible to injuries, keeping your body aligned, and minimizing strain on your muscles and joints. A body that is aligned and upright will make you less prone to have back pain.

Maintain good posture

Proper posture reduces pressure on your spine and discs. Keep your back straight and aligned, particularly when sitting for long periods. Avoid slouching by moving around and stretching every once in a while. Lift heavy objects properly, making your legs — not your back — do most of the work.

Maintain a healthy weight

Excess weight puts more pressure on the spine and discs, making them more susceptible to herniation. To maintain a healthy weight, exercise and workout according to your body’s need. Avoid eating junk food and a bad sleeping pattern. Stress and lack of sleep have been known to cause weight gain.

Quit smoking

Avoid the use of any tobacco products. Smoking is not only dangerous for the lungs, heart, and brain, it also damages the discs between your vertebrae.

Avoid lying face down

Lying on the front of the body is usually considered the worst sleeping posture. However, for those who struggle to sleep in another position, placing a slim pillow underneath the stomach and hips can help improve spinal alignment.

Other Means of Relieving Back Pain

Stretching Regularly

Sometimes the pain in your back is caused by or worsened by stiff muscles. Stretching the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that support the spine is an important element of all back exercise programs. Stretches that help relieve neck and back pain are most probably going to be prescribed by a doctor, physical therapist, or spine specialist.

Stretching has a lot of benefits, including:

  • Reduction of tension in the muscles that support the spine; tension in these muscles can worsen pain from any number of back pain conditions
  • Improvement of the spine’s range of motion and overall mobility
  • Reduction of the risk of disability caused by back pain

Chronic pain (pain that lasts longer than 3 months) may require weeks or months of regular stretching to successfully get rid of the pain. Stretches may be included as part of a physical therapy program, and/or recommended to be done at home daily.

General Tips for Stretching to Relieve Back Pain

To properly stretch and avoid getting injuries, consider the following steps:

  • Wear comfortable clothes that won’t hold or constrict movements
  • Do not force the body into difficult or painful positions—pain in stretching should be minimal to none.
  • Slowly move into a stretch and avoid bouncing as this can cause muscle strain
  • Stretch on a surface that is clean and big enough for you to move around freely.
  • Hold stretches long enough (15 to 30 seconds) to adequately lengthen muscles and improve range of motion1
  • Repeat a stretch between 2 and 5 times—a muscle usually reaches maximum elongation after about 4 repetitions1
  • Stretch one side of the body at a time

Neck and Shoulder Stretches

Basic stretches for neck pain are convenient enough to be done regularly throughout the day, such as at home, at work, or even in the car. Some examples include:

  • Flexion stretch—Chin to Chest. Gently bend the head forward, bringing the chin toward the chest until a stretch is felt in the back of the neck.
  • Lateral Flexion Stretch—Ear to Shoulder. Bend the neck to one side as if to touch the ear to the shoulder until a stretch is felt in the side of the neck. Keep the shoulders down and back in a comfortable but healthy posture.
  • Levator scapula stretch- Rest one arm against a wall or doorjamb with the elbow slightly above the shoulder, then turn the head to face the opposite direction. Bring the chin down toward the collarbone to feel a stretch in the back of the neck. It may be helpful to gently pull the head forward with the other hand to hold the stretch for the desired time.
  • Corner stretch- Stand facing the corner of a room, and place the forearms on each wall with the elbows around shoulder height. Then lean forward until a stretch is felt under the collarbone.

Stretches such as neck circles (where the head is rolled repeatedly around the neck) or quickly stretching the neck forward, backward, or side to side are not recommended as these kinds of stretches may cause muscle strain or place additional stress on the cervical spine.

Stretches for Low Back Pain

  • Back Flexion Stretch- Lying on the back, pull both knees to the chest while simultaneously flexing the head forward until a comfortable stretch is felt across the mid and low back.
  • Knee to Chest Stretch- Lie on the back with the knees bent and both heels on the floor, then place both hands behind one knee and pull it toward the chest, stretching the gluteus and piriformis muscles in the buttock.
  • Kneeling Lunge Stretch- Starting on both knees, move one leg forward so the foot is flat on the ground, keeping weight evenly distributed through both hips (rather than on one side or the other). Place both hands on the top of the thigh, and gently lean the body forward to feel a stretch in the front of the other leg. This stretch affects the hip flexor muscles, which attach to the pelvis and can impact posture if too tight.
  • Piriformis Muscle Stretch- Lie on the back with knees bent and both heels on the floor. Cross one leg over the other, resting the ankle on the bent knee, then gently pull the bottom knee toward the chest until a stretch is felt in the buttock. Or, lying on the floor, cross one leg over the other and pull it forward over the body at the knee, keeping the other leg flat.

Hamstring Stretches

Tight hamstring muscles, the muscles which run through the back of each thigh from the hip down to the back of the knee, are very commonly associated with lower back pain.

The following stretches can gradually lengthen and reduce tension in the hamstring muscle, which in turn reduces the stress felt in the lower back. Below are the commonly suggested stretches for the hamstring ranked from most difficult to least difficult:

Standing Hamstring Stretch- While standing, bend forward at the waist with arms hanging down toward the ground and with legs straight, without locking the knees. Try to touch the toes but do not strain to do so. Stop bending forward when a slight pulling sensation is felt in the hamstring. This form of exercise is not always recommended as it may be difficult to do and even exacerbate pain from a lumbar herniated disc, spondylolisthesis, or other specific conditions.

Chair Hamstring Stretch- Sitting on a chair, place one leg straight out on another chair in front of the body. Reach toward the toes and stretch one leg at a time.

Towel Hamstring Stretch- While lying on the back, hold each end of a rolled-up towel and wrap it behind the foot. Then pull the leg up in front of the body to feel a slight stretch in the hamstring muscle.

Wall Hamstring Stretch- Lie on the floor, with the buttocks against a wall and the legs stretched up against the wall. Try to push the knee as straight as possible. This stretch is usually gentle on the lower back, as it places minimal stress on the low back and the body is supported while lying down.

Studies show that hamstring stretches are most effective when done for a duration of 30 to 60 seconds. Stretching should be done twice daily and regularly. It can be easier to remember to do the stretches if they are incorporated into a daily routine, such as when getting up every morning and going to bed each night.

Use a Memory Foam Seat Cushion

Memory foam, also known as Viscoelastic polyurethane foam, is a very well-known material used in mattresses and pillows. Memory foams help get rid of the aches and pains that the user feels in their most sensitive area.

Memory foam works by taking the form of your body when in contact with your body heat and goes back to its original form the moment it cools down.

Memory foam seat cushions are a great invention, proved to be extremely effective over time, are known to improve one's back position, and are worth using to prevent potential conditions.

A seat cushion can reduce compression in the spine, which can help to provide back pain relief. The seat cushion is ideal for those who work long hours in front of a desk. It is also a big help for individuals who are driving for a long period.

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