Disc herniation is a broad term describing specific changes in a lumbar disc.
A disc is a soft, rubbery structure located between the vertebral bodies (bones of the spine). The disc acts as a pad or cushion for the bone. The outer portion of the disc (the annulus fibrosus) is made up of a tough fibrocartilage. The middle section (the nucleus pulposus) composed of water and collagen and has a gelatinous (jelly-like) consistency. (Some people describe the disc structure as resembling a jelly donut.) The disc allows for movement of the vertebral bodies and provides a buffer for compression between the bones. Normally, this system works very well.
When a disc herniates, however, there has been a tear in the annulus fibrosus, and some of the gelatinous center comes out through the tear. These herniations are described by their size, as follows: bulge (small), protrusion (slightly larger), extrusion (big) and a sequestered fragment (when some of the material has broken off from the disc). Once the disc has left its original anatomical position, the disc itself can be painful, it might irritate a nerve, or it may contribute to narrowing of the spinal canal .
First, it is quite common to have multiple herniated discs in the lumbar spine. In studies of people who were not experiencing back pain, many had disc herniations that caused no pain symptoms. Second, the term “disc herniation” is very broad, and can describe mild bulges to extreme protrusions that cause pain.
“Herniation” is a good – if broad – term to describe a change in the disc. In many ways, it is as generic as saying you drive “a car”. But that car can be a compact car, a sedan, a station wagon, or a large SUV. The same goes for disc herniations – they can be disc bulges, protrusions, extrusions or sequestered fragments. As they get bigger, they involve more symptoms .
There are four situations where surgery is probably the best solution. These are, if you have:
This is a disorder affecting a bundle of spinal nerve roots, which is extremely rare and requires urgent surgery. This syndrome includes back and leg pain, weakness and numbness, and may be associated with problems with bladder and bowel function.
Many people have some strength loss, but if it is worsening, this would be an indication for surgery.
If your pain cannot be controlled with medicine, injections, or therapy, then this too would be an indication for surgery.
If a comprehensive program of physical therapy, medication, and/or injections has failed, then you might be a candidate for surgery.
A study of patients with different sized herniations showed that by six months to one year, herniated disc material had dissolved in many of the cases. The larger the herniation (extrusions), the faster the material was reabsorbed.
Long-term studies have shown that, although surgical intervention may generate a faster initial recovery time, conservative (nonsurgical) outcomes are equally effective in patients after five and 10 years [5, 6].
The nerves in your legs come off of the spinal cord. As they come off, they run in the spinal canal and then come out between two of the spinal vertebrae. It is in the canal that the disc irritates the nerve, sending pain down the leg. [7, 8].
When these nerves are still in the spinal canal, they are named by the associated disc level (lumbar 5 or L5). Once they exit the canal at the individual vertebrae levels, they are grouped together to make up named nerves, such as the sciatic nerve.
There are a lot of options for nonsurgical treatment of low back pain. The first is physical therapy. Good physical therapy will allow for the disc to heal and to provide improvements in biomechanics and strength. Recent studies have shown that directed physical therapy is more successful than more random approaches. Often, this is enough.
When the pain is too much to try physical therapy, however, epidural steroid injections can also be very helpful. Epidural injections are safe when compared to more invasive procedures. Complications include bleeding, headaches, infections, and very rarely, injury to a nerve. However, pain reduction can be markedly improved. Studies have shown excellent pain reduction and return to function with the use of epidural injections.
The combination of these two techniques can be the most effective treatment of all – the epidural provides pain reduction and makes the physical therapy that much more successful.