The spine is a complex mechanical structure composed of bones (vertebrae) separated by pads of fibrocartilage (discs) that allow some movement between these bones. The discs also create a space between each vertebra that allows a nerve to pass through on each side. The nerves that pass between the vertebrae in the lower back travel down each leg while the nerves that pass between the vertebrae in the lower neck travel down each arm. Individually, each disc can be compared to a jelly donut – they have a softer gel-like center surrounded by a tougher exterior. Like a jelly donut, the interior can sometimes squeeze out. Unlike a jelly donut, this can be more than a minor annoyance; this can compress the nearby nerve and cause a variety of symptoms, including pain, numbness, tingling or even weakness in an arm or leg.
The good news is that spinal disc herniations can usually be treated with conservative care without the need for surgery. Such treatments may include manual manipulation techniques or mechanical traction therapy to reduce the degree of disc herniation and relieve pressure on the nearby nerve. Other treatments may include anti-inflammatory and/or pain medications, injections and a variety of more invasive surgical interventions, depending on the problem type and severity in each particular case.
It is important that disc and related conditions are evaluated by a qualified provider before recommendations can be made regarding the best approach in each individual situation. However, it is generally recommended that you AVOID trying to stretch or do other exercises prior to being evaluated and given appropriate recommendations as certain movements may worsen this condition. There are also “red-flags” that your provider will look for such as a loss of bowel or bladder function or control, numbness or “pins and needles” sensation in the groin and inner thighs as well as some other symptoms and physical findings that may indicate a rare but serious condition known as Cauda Equina Syndrome (if you do have these symptoms or if your condition is rapidly worsening you should have immediate ER evaluation to ensure appropriate timely management).
Although spinal disc problems can sometimes be serious and even require surgery, they can most often be effectively treated with conservative care and the patient can return to their usual activities with little or no limitation. It is important to consult with your primary care physician or other qualified provider to ensure that you receive the necessary evaluation (including MRI and/or other testing if/as appropriate in each individual case) to determine the best course of care for your condition and to allow you to begin this care as early as possible for the best therapeutic results and outcome.