Ruptured Disc: Causes, Symptoms and Solutions

The spine is perhaps the very core of the human body; a central support system that forms and carries the body, the very home of the central nervous system. When the spine experiences a ruptured disc, the bodies home is jeopardized. The intervertebral discs, situated between spinal vertebrae, which preserve and protect this precious nerve center–thus also preserving and protecting one’s very movement and sense of well-being. This is why the medical issue known as the ruptured disc is such a serious and problematic condition.

More than 3 million Americans each year suffer from a ruptured disc. And before we take a closer look at this all too prevalent medical condition, we first should examine the makeup and purpose of the intervertebral disc.

  • As the spinal column is set in motion, it draws its protection from intervertebral discs.
  • These discs shield the spine from stresses and impacts, thus guarding and supporting the core of the body.
  • Intervertebral discs consist of an annulus, a solid exterior layer, and a softer inner layer known as a liquid nucleus.  Made from a hard outer layer known as the “annulus” and a soft, liquid-like inner material referred to as the “nucleus,” these discs act as shock absorbers and protect the spine from everyday stresses.
  • The annulus fibrosus consists of a strong substance known as lamellae; sheets of collagen fibers affixed to vertebral end plates, orientated at differing angles. The annulus fibrosus encloses the nucleus pulposus, which contains far more fluid and a gelled substance that resists compression.
  • These discs make up a full quarter of the length of the spinal column. Their secured end plates supply them with needed nutrients.
  • The spine likens to the anatomy’s shock absorbing system, supplying able protection for the brain, spinal column and nerves.

 

 

 

picture of ruptured disc treatment

 Rupture Disc Symptoms

When a disc is torn or ruptured, its outer layer is weakened to the point that the liquidy inner layer permeates the barrier and penetrates the spinal canal, this can serve to severely impact the movement, the functioning, and the very life of the patient.

The causes of ruptured discs can be many and varied. A good number of cases, however, seem to stem from some common factors and occurrences:

 

  • Aging itself is a primary cause of a ruptured disc. The body can wear down a bit in its senior years, and older Americans over 60 “are more likely to suffer from pain related to degeneration of the joints in the spine.”
  • No doubt about it, everyday life ain’t easy. And these days, the strain and overexertion that one expends through everyday effort can bring about tearing and rupturing of the intervertebral discs.  Even if one is normally active and athletic, normal daily activity and movement can take its toll on the body.
  • The troublesome condition of degenerative disc disease is another cause of a ruptured disc, as–true to its name–the disease involves the tiring and tearing of the spinal discs. The discs might crack, dry up, and cause pain and discomfort; and eventually, these same discs might rupture.
  • Accidents and trauma. Whether it’s a car accident or a sports-related injury, a blow or a fall, any instance or degree of bodily trauma can result in torn or ruptured disc; which is why many sports medicine physicians and accident doctors specialize in back injury cases.
  • Excessive weight. Few people like to discuss the subject of obesity or excess weight; and indeed, 34 percent of today’s Americans are considered overweight. Yet it is important to note the physical and health-related effects of obesity on the human anatomy; up to and including ruptured discs. Indeed, any amount of excess pounds can stress and strain just about every part of the body; including the legs, the knees, the hips, and–yes–the back. This is why overweight and obese individuals, in particular, suffer from the ruptured disc condition. WebMD, in fact, reports that obesity is among the leading causes of back pain because it stresses the joints and lower back; and that close to 17 percent of obese people suffer from this condition.

 

  • Lifting and exerting. Those who do a great deal of lifting, or who overexert themselves, stand a greater chance of developing the condition of a ruptured disc–as do those who dare to make ‘one false move,’ so to speak; who lift or strain a little too much one day, either while exercising or engaging in a strenuous activity such as moving, dancing, rough housing or playing sports, working at a physically challenging job, even driving for long and sustained periods of time or every day on the job, etc. Even those who bend at an awkward angle to retrieve something from the floor may run the risk of hurting their backs; which is why older adults in particular often learn new and modified ways to lift, to exercise, to play sports, to dance, to move in general–to essentially avoid throwing out their backs, or–for that matter–rupturing their discs. On the other hand, another prominent cause of the ruptured disc condition is…
  • Too little physical exertion. We just can’t win at this ruptured disc thing–can we? Ah, but unfortunately it’s true; just like any other part of the body, the back does require a certain amount of gradual, judiciously completed movement and exercise in order to remain both strong and flexible. This is why a steady regimen of exercise is a designated part of nearly every rehabilitation program; and why athletes, and pretty much anyone who wants to stay healthy, exercise on a daily basis. That old tried and true phrase, “If you don’t move it or use it, you lose it,” never has been more true or applicable; in order to keep your muscles and joints in good working order, you do have to move and exercise them on a regular basis. And those who remain inactive or sedentary, then overexert themselves or over reach in a single spurt of strenuous movement, could be at the greatest risk of physical injury. Stay mobile and active via a regular schedule of favorite activities; whether they take the form of calisthenics, walking and jogging, sports, low impact aerobics, etc. Partake in enjoyable activities that you actually like, so that you will be more liable to stick and adhere to your prescribed exercise program. Just be certain to clear any planned fitness regimen with your physician, and take it easy!
  • Lack of nutrition. OK, so we all know that a poor or insufficient diet can wreck adverse effects on the stomach, the brain, the digestive system, the bones, etc. Yet why should the issue of malnutrition affect one’s back, spine, or vertebral discs? Well the phrase “You are what you eat” really does ring true, in that everything we eat truly does affect every part of our body as well as its overall functioning. This includes the back and spine; the that consuming a balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, vitamins and nutrients can reduce back problems by nourishing the bones, muscles, discs and other structures in the spine. A steady, varied and healthful diet rich in calcium, magnesium, iron, proteins, Vitamins B12, C, K2, D3 etc., is generally conducive to good back health. To this end, you may want to eat plenty of yogurt, cheese, milk, green vegetables, fish, seeds, beans, nuts, cereals, juices, breads, eggs, and nutritional supplements–that’s right, when Ma said to eat your veggies and take your vitamins, she was on the right track–not that you ever have to fess up and admit it to her. And speaking of Mom…
  • Family history. Like just about any disease or disorder, from cancer to heart disease, one’s genetics can help to determine their likelihood of contracting the ruptured disc, as patients may find that this troublesome condition is indeed ‘in the genes.’ Science Daily, in fact, reports that “Individuals with lumbar disc disease were more likely to have family members with disc disease. Relative risk for lumbar disc disease was significantly elevated in both close and distant relatives.” So while consulting an orthopedic physician about this problem, he/she will likely ask you about any possible family history of ruptured disc or other back issues. In addition, some people literally are born with these issues; considering the fact that congenital spine abnormalities affect up to 12 percent of the population, and can be defined as “spinal deformities identified at birth that are a byproduct of anomalous vertebral development in the embryo.” And eventually, these congenital spine abnormalities can lead to related disorders such as ruptured discs.   

 

picture of ruptured disc symptoms

 

 Rupture Disc in Back

While we’re talking about uncontrollable causing factors, bless ‘em, it’s also a fact that gender is a contributing factor; with males between the ages of 30 and 50 particularly prone to painful and ruptured discs.

  • Cigarettes and alcohol. The effects of smoking and drinking on the heart, liver, stomach, brain, and other parts of the body are well documented and much discussed. Yet the fact is that excessive use of alcohol and cigarettes can also wreak havoc on the back as well; with lower back pain being most common among 16.5 percent of smokers, and 15 percent of alcoholics. This is something of a vicious circle, as smoking decreases blood flow in the brain and alcohol is well known for its many effects; and conversely, those who smoke and drink may be less likely to exercise, to eat right, to do other things that can treat and/or prevent ruptured disc and back pain. In short, in order to get the vast majority of orthopedic problems off your back, don’t drink or smoke!
  • Depression. How on earth could a corollary exist between a psychological condition such as depression and a physical malady such as a ruptured disc? Well the fact is that 19 percent of those who suffer from depression also contend with back pain. Again, this can be a vicious cycle; as those in acute pain and discomfort are more likely to be depressed, and depressed individuals may be less likely to exercise, eat right, etc.

 

picture of what a ruptured disc feels like

What does a ruptured disc feel like?

As its name would indicate, the ruptured disc condition is a painful and impactful one; and many people ask, What does a ruptured disc feel like? Well to answer this question, let’s take a look at ruptured disc symptoms:

 

  • Pain. The pain affiliated with a ruptured disc can be dull or sharp, mild or intense, but can even feel as though it’s emanating from another part of the anatomy–such as the stomach, the kidneys, and even the heart. That’s right; a person dealing with a ruptured disc may even feel as though they are having a heart attack, or perhaps that they have been afflicted with a serious and prolonged medical condition–indeed, the signs even can be similar to those suffered by cancer patients. Alternately, the discs may exert pressure on the spine, and pain may race and radiate across your shoulders and down the arms and legs.
  • Weakness and tenderness. Even if you are not in great pain, a ruptured disc can bring about a feeling of weakness in the back. If your back feels heavier, more weary or burdened than usual or perhaps tender to the touch, then you might be suffering from a ruptured disc.
  • Unusual sensations in the back. Do your back muscles feel unusually tight, cramped, tingly, or even as though pins and needles are pricking your skin and straining your back or legs? There again, you may suffering from a ruptured disc.
  • Spinal deformities. When afflicted with a ruptured disc, your spinal column may be lacking in structure or support. This marked shift in the structure of the spinal column might be apparent to the eye, and will almost definitely affect the movement and posture of the afflicted individual.
  • Compression of the spinal cord. In rare and highly severe instances, the ruptured disc actually compresses the spinal cord; symptoms of this advanced condition might include incontinence and high fever.
  • A pain in the neck. Also be aware of a related medical issue, the ruptured disc in neck. It is very common, in fact, for a ruptured disc to appear in the neck or the cervical spine–or the area that falls between the head and the chest.

 

picture of ruptured disc surgery

 

Ruptured Disc Treatment

At the first appearance of any of these signs or symptoms, contact a physician immediately. A top quality orthopedic physician will administer the X-rays, MRIs, pain mapping techniques and other imaging tests needed to diagnose the issue of ruptured discs. Once this diagnosis is made, the physician or surgeon will work with you to determine a course of ruptured disc treatment.

It is vital to remedy any instance of a ruptured disc, as this condition can lead to other, even more serious orthopedic conditions such as sciatica and debilitating lower back pain. In addition, a skilled orthopedic specialist can determine if you suffer, technically and specifically, from a ruptured disc or a herniated disc.

 

 

picture of ruptured disc recovery time

 

Is a ruptured disc the same as a herniated disc

In many instances, the terms herniated disc, ruptured disc and slipped disc are considered interchangeable, even in advanced medical journals. The terms are so similar, in fact, that some people feel pressed to pose the question, “Is a ruptured disc the same as a herniated disc?”

 

infographic of a herniated disc

 

In essence, the answer is yes; in the instance of both ruptured and herniated discs, the disc has been pressured and burdened to the point of tearing; although the term ruptured disc is more often employed to describe a disc torn through force of injury or trauma. These terms should be sharply differentiated from the related term of bulging disc, however, as a bulging disc is a common characteristic of aging and simply references a disc that grows larger in size.  

 

picture of a woman with a ruptured disc in neck

 

Ruptured Disc Recovery Time

So once it is finally determined that you do indeed have a ruptured disc, how can it be treated and resolved? Well in many instances, a number of sources agree that initial ruptured disc treatment should be gentle, therapeutic and noninvasive in nature. Possible nonsurgical treatments should include:

  • Rest and reduced activity. Often the favorite course of treatment among patients, rest and relaxation is often regarded as an optimum way to remedy one’s ruptured disc condition. The patient is encouraged to closely monitor and regulate one’s activity levels and just enjoy some well-earned downtime. On the other hand…
  • Exercise. Granted, a strenuous, high impact workout regimen might not be advisable for a ruptured disc patient. Yet a regimen of gentle and deliberate stretching, performed carefully, regularly, and under a doctor’s supervision, may actually help and heal the ruptured disc. The patient even might be encouraged to wear special back braces or footwear to take additional pressure off the back, and to undergo therapeutic massages.
  • Heat and ice. Both hot and cold therapies (often administered in the form of heat or ice packs or pads) can serve to soothe the often intense pain associated with the ruptured disc; speeding and assisting the healing process.
  • Medicine. No known medication can cure ruptured discs. Yet whether prescribing doses of ibuprofen and acetaminophen or medications that battle pain and inflammation, such as muscle relaxants and corticosteroids, doctors seek to relieve the pain and hasten the healing processes of ruptured disc patients by way of medicinal pills and injections.
  • Wait and see. Some doctors and patients take a wait and see attitude when it comes to the ruptured disc condition; allowing time for rest and self-healing.

 

picture of a woman on a beach with a ruptured disc in back

 

If all else fails, then the time may come for the ruptured disc patient and their physician to consider the possibility of ruptured disc surgery. And luckily, today’s orthopedic surgeries are less painless and invasive than in times past.

Today’s ruptured disc surgeries tend to involve smaller and very precise incisions, with far less bleeding and pain, not to mention poking and prodding, involved–as well as less time spent in the operating and recovery rooms. This is particularly true of robotic spine surgery, which involves a complex advanced imaging process that most literally grants the orthopedic surgeon a clear image of the spine. They thus can make a precise incision, removing the part of the ruptured disc that is irritating and agitating the spine; or, if needed, the entire disc.

The objective of ruptured disc surgery is always the removal of the pain and discomfort caused by this traumatic condition, with as little trauma to the body as possible. And thanks to the high tech, noninvasive nature of modern surgery techniques, the ruptured disc recovery time is substantially shorter in most cases. Indeed, some patients report recovery times of four to six weeks; although a more realistic expectation might be three to six months to allow for a full return to all normal life activities, including those that are professional and recreational in nature.

Thanks to modern robotic spine surgery and highly holistic forms of advanced orthopedic treatment, a ruptured disc does not have to mean a disrupted life.

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