SPINE

Herniated Disk

A common source of back or neck pain is a herniated disk. Sometimes called a "slipped" or "ruptured" disk, this condition most often occurs in the lower back, as well as the smaller disks in the neck.

Although a herniated disk can sometimes be very painful, most people feel much better with just a few months of simple, nonsurgical treatments.

Anatomy

Disks are soft, rubbery pads found between the hard bones (vertebrae) that make up the spinal column. The disks between the vertebrae allow the back to flex or bend. Disks also act as shock absorbers.

Disks in the lumbar spine (low back) are composed of a thick outer ring of cartilage (annulus) and an inner gel-like substance (nucleus). In the cervical spine (neck), the disks are similar but smaller in size.

Cause

A disk herniates or ruptures when part of the center nucleus pushes through the outer edge of the disk and back toward the spinal canal. This puts pressure on the nerves. Spinal nerves are very sensitive to even slight amounts of pressure, which can result in pain, numbness, or weakness in one or both legs.

*All Information provided by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Lumbar Spinal Stenosis

A common cause of low back and leg pain is lumbar spinal stenosis.

As we age, our spines change. These normal wear-and-tear effects of aging can lead to narrowing of the spinal canal. This condition is called spinal stenosis.

Degenerative changes of the spine are seen in up to 95% of people by the age of 50. Spinal stenosis most often occurs in adults over 60 years old. Pressure on the nerve roots is equally common in men and women.

A small number of people are born with back problems that develop into lumbar spinal stenosis. This is known as congenital spinal stenosis. It occurs most often in men. People usually first notice symptoms between the ages of 30 and 50.

Anatomy

Your spine is made up of small bones, called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of one another. Muscles, ligaments, nerves, and intervertebral disks are additional parts of your spine.

Understanding your spine and how it works can help you better understand spinal stenosis. Learn more about spine anatomy

This illustration shows a healthy vertebra (cross-section view) and a vertebra with narrowing of the spinal canal, called stenosis

Description

Spinal stenosis occurs when the space around the spinal cord narrows. This puts pressure on the spinal cord and the spinal nerve roots, and may cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs.

Cause

Arthritis is the most common cause of spinal stenosis. Arthritis refers to degeneration of any joint in the body.

In the spine, arthritis can result as the disk degenerates and loses water content. In children and young adults, disks have high water content. As we get older, our disks begin to dry out and weaken. This problem causes settling, or collapse, of the disk spaces and loss of disk space height.

As the spine settles, two things occur. First, weight is transferred to the facet joints. Second, the tunnels that the nerves exit through become smaller.

As the facet joints experience increased pressure, they also begin to degenerate and develop arthritis, similar to that occurring in the hip or knee joint. The cartilage that covers and protects the joints wears away. If the cartilage wears away completely, it can result in bone rubbing on bone.

Arthritic bone spurs narrow the spinal canal.

To make up for the lost cartilage, your body may respond by growing new bone in your facet joints to help support the vertebrae. Over time, this bone overgrowth-called spurs-may narrow the space for the nerves to pass through.

Another response to arthritis in the lower back is that ligaments around the joints increase in size. This also lessens space for the nerves. Once the space has become small enough to irritate spinal nerves, painful symptoms result.

Sciatica

If you suddenly start feeling pain in your lower back or hip that radiates to the back of your thigh and into your leg, you may have a protruding (herniated) disk in your spinal column that is pressing on the nerve roots in the lumbar spine. This condition is known as sciatica.

Symptoms

Sciatica may feel like a bad leg cramp, with pain that is sharp ("knife-like"), or electrical. The cramp can last for weeks before it goes away. You may have pain, especially when you move, sneeze, or cough. You may also have weakness, "pins and needles" numbness, or a burning or tingling sensation down your leg.

Causes

You are most likely to get sciatica between the ages of 30 and 50 years. It may happen as a result of the general wear and tear of aging, plus any sudden pressure on the disks that cushion the bones (vertebrae) of your lower spine.

Treatment

Nonsurgical Treatment

The condition usually heals itself, given sufficient time and rest. Approximately 80% to 90% of patients with sciatica get better over time without surgery, typically within several weeks.

Nonsurgical treatment is aimed at helping you manage your pain without long-term use of medications. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or muscle relaxants may also help. In addition, you may find it soothing to put gentle heat or cold on your painful muscles. It is important that you continue to move. Do not remain in bed, as too much rest may cause other parts of the body to feel discomfort.

Find positions that are comfortable, but be as active as possible. Motion helps to reduce inflammation. Most of the time, your condition will get better within a few weeks.

Sometimes, your doctor may inject your spinal area with a cortisone-like drug.

As soon as possible, start stretching exercises so you can resume your physical activities without sciatica pain. Your doctor may want you to take short walks and may prescribe physical therapy.

Surgical Treatment

You might need surgery if you still have disabling leg pain after 3 months or more of nonsurgical treatment. A part of your surgery, your herniated disk may be removed to stop it from pressing on your nerve.

The surgery (laminotomy with discectomy) may be done under local, spinal, or general anesthesia. This surgery is usually very successful at relieving pain, particularly if most of the pain is in your leg.

*All Information provided by The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

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