For many people, injury to one of the discs in the lumbar spine (lower back) evokes thoughts of costly MRIs, large needles for injections, and stories of friends who have had bad backs their whole life. An injury to the low back doesn’t have to be a career or recreation ending injury and can be safely treated with conservative measures, so before you start thinking surgery I want to do some educating on discs and disc injuries to ease any fears of the unknown.
Anatomy of your Disc
The discs of the low back are like other structures in the body (bones, skin, tendons, muscles, etc) that can heal. To give you a better understanding, let’s start with some basic anatomy
A disc can become weakened due to the normal degenerative process of aging, prior injury from the glory days of high school sports, current or past overuse that is often due to lifting during work or sports, or a multitude of other injuries from falls or accidents. These past injuries often predispose the disc to future injury and limit its normal functions of support and cushion. The disc is most prone to injury with combined flexion and twisting motions. Throw on a weighted load such as during shoveling snow or yard work and you are setting yourself up back pain.
Injury can happen to inner or outer layers of the disc, the internal nucleus or a combination of those, which can cause a herniated (bulging) disc. In some cases a bulging disc can impinge on a spinal nerve and cause pain, numbness, and/or tingling down the leg. However, depending on the extent of the bulge and where the injury is, the back may or may not even hurt and there are not always symptoms down the leg. For this reason, we can’t say that all discs herniations benefit from traction (aka “decompression therapy”), injections or surgery. This is where detailed evaluation from a skilled physical therapist can help you. Put us on your list of things to try if you think you might have injured your back at some point.
This post has covered the basics of the anatomy and what happens during an injury. In our next post we will go into more details of the symptoms of a herniated disc and what treatment approaches physical therapists can use to eliminate your symptoms and get you back to a normal life without surgery. If you have any questions, please give us a call or comment on this post. If you know you do have, or suspect you have, a herniated disc, give us a call to set up an initial consultation. We can often have you feeling better in just a few treatments.
Make sure to look out for Part 2 of this post, "Herniated Discs: Treatment".
- Kacie Rognlie, DPT
Synergy Manual Physical Therapy
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