The shock-absorbing discs that separate the bones in the spine are
probably the most common reason for spine surgery. The disc is much
like a jelly doughnut, in that there is an outside wall to the disc
and a soft center. The “jelly” is the inner spongy portion
of the disc, called the nucleus pulposus. Encircling the jelly nucleus
are hard bands of fibrous tissue called the annulus fibrosis, or
With age, the disc can become more brittle and susceptible to herniation
or rupture. Years of strain, and poor body lifting form, can take
a toll. One day, a sudden stress from lifting can cause this weakened
disc to rupture, allowing the jelly center to squirt out of the disc
space. This jelly contains chemicals which are extremely irritating
to the nerves, which can also cause swelling.
Because the nerve roots act as telegraph lines to other parts of the
body, a common complication of disc herniation is that it can cause
pain that is felt in other parts of the body, like the leg. In fact,
leg pain below the knee is a common herniated disc symptom. This
radiating pain is called radicular pain or radiculopathy.
Your physician will request diagnostic testing to help determine the best treatment plan.
Unlike muscles which can heal somewhat quickly, a torn or degenerated
disc heals more slowly. The good news is that in many cases, the
pain and inflammation originating from damaged discs can be treated
nonsurgically by reducing the inflammation and by strengthening the
musculature surrounding the damaged disc to give it more support.
What is degenerative disc disease?
A natural byproduct of aging is the loss of resiliency in spinal discs and a greater tendency for them to herniate, especially when placed under a weighty load, like when we lift heavy objects. Additionally, some people have a family history of degenerative disc disease, which increases their own risk of developing it. When a natural disc herniates or becomes badly degenerated, it loses its shock-absorbing ability, which can narrow the space between vertebrae.
Who is a candidate for the artificial disc?
Patients with a diseased disc between L4 and L5 or between L5 and S1 (all in the lower back) that is worn out or become injured and causes back pain are candidates for the artificial disc. Other candidates include those with degenerative disc disease (DDD) whose bones (vertebrae) have moved less than 3mm. Your physician will help you determine whether or not the artificial disc is a good choice for you. Factors that will be considered include your activity level, weight, occupation and allergies.
What are the benefits of the artificial disc?
Generally speaking, those who receive artificial disc replacements return to activity sooner than traditional fusion patients. Also, because there is no need to harvest bone from the patient’s hip, there is no discomfort or recovery associated with a second incision site. Some of the overall benefits of artificial disc surgery include:
What caused my disc to herniate?
Herniated discs can occur as a result of a heavy strain or fall, which causes the nucleus to break through the wall of the disc and place pressure on the nerves that branch out from the spinal cord. For example, lifting a heavy object after sitting down for a long period of time can cause a disc to herniate.
What is the best way to treat a herniated disc?
Nonsurgical treatment methods are always the best option to try first.
This will most likely involve working with a physical therapist who
will develop a customized exercise program involving specific stretches
and extension movements for you.
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