A herniated lumbar disc is a common injury to the lower back. It affects more men than women and occurs most often in people between the ages of 20 to 50. A herniated lumbar disc can cause severe pain and dysfunction and is a leading cause of lost work time worldwide. Herniation of the vertebral discs is often also referred to a ‘slipped disc’ which is a misnomer as the discs are in fact firmly attached to the lumbar vertebral bones.
How does a herniated lumbar disc occur?
The intervertebral discs are discs of shock absorbing material that are situated between each of your spinal vertebrae. A herniated lumbar disc occurs when the central portion of the lumbar spine disc protrudes through the outer layer. If you think of your vertebral discs as being like a jelly doughnut, then the jelly in the middle gets squeezed out. Pain is caused by inflammatory chemicals that are released around the injured area, and importantly, the injured disc can also put pressure on the nerve roots as they travel through the adjoining tunnel to and from the spinal cord. This can cause pain, pins and needles and numbness into your leg and also lead to significant muscular weakness.
Even though a herniated lumbar disc can be serious, it is very common for the activity that triggers this injury to be something very simple. For example, coughing, sneezing or bending down to pick up a small object from the floor. The damage to the outer layer of the disc has been slowly developing and worsening over many years, and it is this trivial activity that f
inally causes the last fibers in the damaged area to tear.
How can you treat a herniated lumbar disc?
Most people who have a herniated lumbar disc will find that their symptoms will improve on their own over the course of 6 to 8 weeks. For some people, however, symptoms can persist. It is really important to keep as active as possible. Many people find manual therapy to be effective in reducing their pain and other symptoms. This treatment may include mobilization of the spine, specific exercises to stretch, strengthen or address any imbalances of the surrounding muscles and the use of various other pain relieving modalities.
For a small group of people, surgery is required. Surgery is usually aimed at reducing the pressure from the herniated disc on surrounding tissues and is especially focused on r
elieving any pressure on the nerve roots as they exit from the spinal cord. This should relieve any symptoms of pain or altered sensation travelling down into the leg. There are many different forms of surgery for lumbar disc herniation, and your surgeon will discuss with you the techniques that are most appropriate for you. The technology and surgical techniques involved in lumbar spine surgery have improved greatly in recent times and most patients, after surgery, will enjoy a very good level of pain reduction and will be able to eventually resume their previous activities and lifestyle.