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How Serious Are Herniated Discs?


It is estimated about 2 percent of people experience issues with a herniated disc (also commonly known as a "slipped disc" or “ruptured disc”) each year. More often than not, spinal disc issues of this nature are not serious enough to require surgery. Whether or not a herniated disc is "serious" depends on where it is located and what it may be doing to any nearby nerves. This article discusses the varying degrees of seriousness associated with herniated discs and what to consider with treatment.

Symptoms Are Sometimes Mild or Nonexistent

Not all spinal discs result in pain or any other noticeable discomfort if inner disc material pushes outward. Other times, mild symptoms may be experienced. While each situation is different, mild discomfort that is generally not too difficult to manage or live with often improves significantly or goes away entirely within 2–3 weeks following the onset of noticeable symptoms.

Long-Term Symptoms Can Be Serious

Lingering or long-term discomfort from a herniated spinal disc has the potential to take a toll on your daily quality of life. This is more likely to be considered a serious issue if disc-related pain affects you in any of the following ways:

• Your mobility is decreasing
• You are having difficulty with work-related tasks
• Your symptoms are making it difficult to sleep through the night
• You are also experiencing arm or leg pain, depending on where the problem disc is located
• Your symptoms are mainly neurological

Severe or Debilitating Symptoms Are Serious

A herniated disc is considered very serious and a reason to seek immediate medical attention if the symptoms are extremely severe. This is typically defined as disc-related discomfort that includes:

• Extremely severe sciatica-related symptoms*
• Difficulty managing bowel or bladder functions
• Radiating symptoms that include numbness and/or tingling
• Muscle weakness that is significantly affecting mobility

*Occurs when the herniated disc affects the sciatic nerve

When to Seek Treatment

If your disc-related issues continue beyond a month or so, it is best to get a diagnosis so confirmation of a herniated disc can be made with image tests. This also rules out other possible spine problems that could be producing similar symptoms. One possibility is an inflamed piriformis muscle, which is located fairly close to the sciatic nerve.

What May Treatment Involve?

Unless symptoms are severe, physical therapy is not typically recommended until discomfort goes beyond the 2–3 week point after symptoms were first experienced. With extremely severe or debilitating symptoms, surgery (typically a discectomy or less invasive microdiscectomy) may be discussed and potentially recommended. Otherwise, herniated disc symptoms that are still manageable or only mildly disruptive to your daily routine are likely to be treated with conservative methods. In addition to physical therapy, the most common treatments falling into this category include:

• Medication to manage pain or inflammation
• Applications of heat or cold to the affected area
• Epidural injections in the area affected to make it easier to benefit from physical therapy
• Chiropractic manipulation, which is often beneficial if you are not experiencing neurological symptoms
• Nonsurgical decompression that essentially shifts the affected disc in a way that eases nerve irritation

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 back surgery 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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