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Understanding Herniated Discs in Young People


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Herniated discs are a common spinal condition that can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the back, neck, arms, or legs. They occur when the soft inner material of a disc (the cushion between the vertebrae) bulges out through a tear or crack in the outer layer. This can put pressure on the nearby nerves or spinal cord, leading to symptoms that can interfere with daily activities and quality of life.

Herniated discs are often associated with aging, as the discs lose water and elasticity over time and become more prone to damage. However, they can also affect younger people, especially those who engage in certain activities or have certain risk factors. This article explores the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for herniated discs in younger people.

Causes of Herniated Discs at a Young Age

There are several factors that can increase the risk of developing a herniated disc at a young age, such as:

  • Genetics – Some people may inherit a predisposition to disc degeneration or weakness, making them more vulnerable to disc injuries.
  • Trauma – A sudden impact or force on the spine, such as from a car accident, a fall, or a sports injury, can cause a disc to rupture or herniate.
  • Repetitive stress – Activities that involve frequent bending, twisting, lifting, or pushing can put excessive strain on the discs and cause them to wear out faster. This can affect people who work in physically demanding jobs, such as construction workers, landscapers, or nurses, as well as athletes who play contact sports, such as football, rugby, or hockey.
  • Poor posture – Sitting or standing with a slouched or hunched posture can also put pressure on the discs and cause them to degenerate over time. This can affect people who spend long hours in front of computers, smartphones, or TV screens.
  • Smoking – Smoking can reduce the blood supply to the discs and impair their ability to heal and regenerate. It can also increase inflammation and pain in the spine.

Preventing Herniated Discs in Young Adults

While some factors that contribute to herniated discs are beyond one's control, there are some steps young adults can take to prevent or delay disc problems, such as:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight – Excess weight can put extra stress on the spine and increase the risk of disc damage. Losing weight can reduce the pressure on the discs and improve spinal alignment and posture.
  • Strengthening the core muscles – The core muscles (the muscles of the abdomen and back) support the spine and maintain its stability and flexibility. Strengthening these muscles can prevent injuries and reduce pain by absorbing some of the shock and load on the discs. Exercises such as planks, bridges, crunches, and pelvic tilts can build core strength and endurance.
  • Practicing good ergonomics – Using proper techniques and equipment when sitting, standing, working, or lifting can prevent disc problems by minimizing strain and stress on the spine. For example, you should use a chair that supports the natural curve of your spine, adjust the height of your monitor and keyboard to avoid neck strain, take frequent breaks to stretch and move around, and use proper lifting mechanics (bending at the knees and hips rather than at the waist) when handling heavy objects.
  • Avoiding smoking – Quitting smoking can increase blood circulation and oxygen delivery to the discs and reduce inflammation and pain in the spine. It can also lower the risk of other health problems that can affect the spine, such as osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease.
  • Seeking medical attention – If you experience any symptoms of a herniated disc, such as pain that radiates from the back to the arm or leg, numbness or tingling in the extremities, muscle weakness or spasms, or difficulty moving or controlling bowel or bladder functions, you should seek medical attention as soon as possible. Early diagnosis and treatment can prevent further damage and complications.

Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Diagnosing a herniated disc in a young person typically involves a thorough physical examination, a review of his or her medical history, and imaging tests such as X-rays, MRIs, or CT scans. Once a herniated disc is confirmed, the treatment options may vary depending on the severity of the condition and the age of the patient. Nonsurgical herniated disc treatment options include:

  • Rest
  • Physical therapy
  • Pain medications
  • Lifestyle modifications such as improving posture and body mechanics 

In some cases, epidural steroid injections may be recommended to alleviate pain and inflammation. However, if conservative treatments fail to provide relief, surgical options such as discectomy or less invasive microdiscectomy may be recommended.

If you have a herniated disc that is not responding to conservative treatment, a discectomy may be discussed and potentially recommended. Although this is generally a very successful procedure, having a large hole in the outer ring of the disc more than doubles the risk of needing another operation. A new treatment, Barricaid, is a bone-anchored device that closes this hole, and 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in a 2-year study timeframe. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. 

If you have any questions about the Barricaid treatment, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.

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