If you have ever experienced a sudden onset of pain in your back and even your leg, you may have suffered a herniated disc. This condition occurs when the outer wall of a disc (annulus fibrosus) ruptures, tears or breaks open. The matter inside the disc then puts pressure on the spinal nerves, leading to pain.
“Most of the time, the cause of herniated discs is multifactorial,” says Kevin Hsieh, M.D., a neurosurgeon with Piedmont Physicians Neurosurgery. “A lot of the time, it can be stress or strain when trying to lift something too heavy, combined with weakness in the disc annulus. Some folks are predisposed to herniated discs. Being overweight can contribute to the condition as well.”
When disc herniation first occurs, most people will feel sudden tightness and pain in their back. This can also be accompanied by leg pain, which comes from impingement or pressure on a nerve.
How herniated discs affect the body
“The structure of the spine is essentially bones stacked upon discs. The discs act as shock absorbers as well as joints,” he says. “If there is any weakness in the annulus, or the area around the disc, you can put so much force on the disc that it bulges out.”
A separate nerve exits at each level of the spine. A herniated disc can put pressure on the nearby nerve, which leads to pain in different areas of the body.
“That nerve is responsible for sensory and motor innervation to a certain area, which is why we often see arm or leg pain with a herniated disc,” says Dr. Hsieh.
If you experience sudden back pain, especially when bending or lifting, see your doctor as soon as possible to determine if you have suffered a herniated disc. He or she may recommend non-surgical treatment, such as pain management, physical therapy, rest, heat and/or ice. In some cases, surgery may be required.
For more information about herniated discs and other spine conditions, visit Piedmont Spine Center.