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How to Recognize and Treat a Herniated Disc Emergency


8.11 - What Are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc Emergency

A herniated disc is a common spinal condition that can cause discomfort and pain. In most cases, it can be managed with conservative treatments. However, there are instances when a herniated disc becomes a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. This article explores the symptoms of a herniated disc emergency and discusses the importance of prompt medical intervention.

Understanding Herniated Discs

Before reviewing the symptoms of a herniated disc emergency, it is important to explain what a herniated disc is. The spine is made up of vertebrae cushioned by soft, gel-like discs acting as shock absorbers. A herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc or ruptured disc, occurs when the inner gel-like material protrudes through the disc's outer layer due to injury or degeneration.

Common Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

In non-emergency cases, a herniated disc may cause the following symptoms:

  • Localized pain – Pain in the lower back (lumbar herniated disc) or neck (cervical herniated disc) is common
  • Radiating pain – Pain may extend to the arms or legs if the herniation compresses spinal nerves
  • Numbness and tingling – Patients may experience numbness or tingling sensations in the affected area
  • Muscle weakness – Weakness in specific muscle groups may develop due to nerve compression

Recognizing an Emergency Situation

While most herniated discs can be managed with conservative treatments such as rest, physical therapy, and pain medications, certain symptoms indicate a medical emergency:

  • Sudden loss of bladder or bowel control – Difficulty or inability to control bladder or bowel function could signal cauda equina syndrome, a severe nerve compression condition requiring immediate attention
  • Progressive weakness – If muscle weakness rapidly worsens, it may indicate nerve damage that requires urgent evaluation
  • Significant sensory loss – A sudden and substantial decrease in sensation in the arms, legs, or pelvic region demands immediate medical attention
  • Worsening pain – If the pain intensifies or becomes unbearable, especially with loss of sensation or function, seek immediate medical help

Cauda Equina Syndrome: An Urgent Herniated Disc Complication

Cauda equina syndrome is a rare but serious complication of a herniated disc. It occurs when the spinal nerve roots in the lower back become severely compressed. Symptoms of cauda equina syndrome include:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control
  • Severe weakness or numbness in both legs
  • Loss of sensation in the inner thighs, back of legs, and pelvic region
  • Sexual dysfunction

When to Seek Emergency Medical Care

If you experience any of the following symptoms, do not delay seeking emergency medical care:

  • Cauda equina symptoms – The sudden onset of cauda equina syndrome requires immediate evaluation and treatment
  • Progressive neurological deficits – If you notice increasing muscle weakness, loss of sensation, or difficulty controlling your bladder or bowels, seek medical attention promptly
  • Severe and unrelenting pain – Experiencing intense persistent pain that is unresponsive to medication necessitates immediate medical evaluation

Emergency Treatment for Herniated Disc Complications

In cases of a herniated disc emergency, timely medical intervention is crucial to prevent permanent nerve damage. Emergency treatment may involve:

  • Surgery – Emergency decompression surgery such as a laminectomy might be necessary to relieve pressure on the affected nerves
  • Corticosteroid injections – These can reduce inflammation and alleviate pain
  • Pain management – Medications may be administered to control pain and discomfort

A herniated disc can cause significant pain and discomfort, but in most cases, it can be managed with conservative treatments. However, recognizing the symptoms of a herniated disc emergency is vital for prompt medical intervention and preventing potential complications. If you experience severe or worsening symptoms, especially those associated with cauda equina syndrome, do not hesitate to seek immediate medical attention. Early intervention can make a significant difference in your recovery and long-term wellbeing.

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. 

To learn more about the Barricaid treatment, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.

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