What is a herniated disc?

You've probably heard people
say they have a “slipped” or “ruptured” disc in the back. Sometimes they
complain that their back "went out". What they're most likely describing is a
herniated disc. This condition is a common source of back and leg pain.

Discs are soft cushions found
between the vertebrae that make up the spinal column (your backbone). In the
middle of the spinal column is the spinal canal, a hollow space that contains
the spinal cord. The nerves that supply the arms, leg, and torso come from the
spinal cord. The nerves from the neck supply the arms and hands, and the nerves
from the low back supply the butt and legs. The discs between the vertebrae
allow the back to move freely and act like shock absorbers.

The disc is made up of two main
sections. The outer part (the annulus) is made up of tough cartilage that is
comprised of series of rings. The center of the disc is a jelly-like substance
called the nucleus pulposus. A disc herniates or ruptures when part of the jelly
center pushes through the outer wall of the disc into the spinal canal, and puts
pressure on the nerves. A disc bulge is when the jelly substance pushes the
outer wall but doesn't completely go through the wall.

What do you feel?

Low back pain will affect four
out of five people during their lifetime. The most common symptom of a herniated
disc is "sciatica". Sciatica is best described as a sharp, often shooting pain
that begins in the buttocks and goes down the back of one leg. This is most
often caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve that exits the spinal cord. Other
symptoms include:

Weakness in one leg or both legs

Numbness and tingling in one
leg (pins & needles)

A burning pain centered in the
low back

Loss of bladder or bowel
control (seek medical attention immediately)

Back pain with gradually
increasing leg pain. (If you have weakness in both legs. Seek immediate

How do you know you have a herniated disc?

Your medical history is key to
a proper diagnosis. A physical examination can usually determine which nerve
roots are affected (and how seriously). A simple x-ray may show evidence of disc
or degenerative spine changes. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is usually
the best option (most expensive) to determine which disc has herniated. 

Why do discs herniate?

Discs are primarily composed of water. As we become older
(after the age of 30), the water content decreases, so the discs begin to shrink
and lose their shape. When the disc becomes smaller the space between the
vertebrae decreases and become narrower. Also, as the disc loses water content
the disc itself becomes less flexible.

While aging, excess weight, improper lifting and the
decrease in water in the discs all contribute to the breaking down of discs, the
primary cause of a herniation or bluge is uneven compression and torsion that's
placed on the discs.

This uneven pressure is caused by imbalances in muscles
that pull the spine out of its normal position and then your body is forced to
function in what I call a physical dysfunction. Every human being develops these
dysfunctions over time and eventually they cause enough damage to create pain.

The best treatment options

When it comes to
treating a herniated disc, there are traditional treatments such as ice/heat,
ultrasound, electrical stimulation, cortisone injections, anti-inflammatory
medications and even surgery. While these may deliver some relief, it will
usually be temporary if at all.

But the major
problem with these traditional treatments is that they can't fix or heal a
herniated disc as they do not address the actual cause of the problem. For
example, even if you were to have a surgery and get some pain relief, the fact
is the dysfunctions that caused the disc to herniated in the first place are
still there and if not addressed, they will continue to place uneven pressure
and strain on the discs and sooner or later you will likely have another problem
with that disc, or others.

identifying and addressing the underlying cause of the problem, which is the
physical dysfunctions caused by imbalances in muscles, you will likely continue
to suffer with this condition and the continuous flare ups for years.

most doctors, chiropractors and physical therapists don't spend time or focus on
identifying the physical dysfunctions that are responsible for the condition so
most people end up jumping from one useless traditional treatment to the next
and suffer for months or years unnecessarily.

If you have been
diagnosed with a herniated disc, or are wondering if your back pain may be
caused by a herniated disc, either way you must identify and address the
physical dysfunctions that are causing your pain.

For more
information on herniated discs and how to treat them effectively, read the
latest Back Pain Advisory from The Healthy Back Institute. You can get a free
copy of it here: