The more you learn about the human body, the more you will realize just how little you know. It is astounding how incredibly complex we are – from our biochemistry to our biomechanics – but despite this complexity, there is so much purpose in how our bodies function.
What is unique about our spines is that they are tasked with protecting the central nervous system while also providing functional movement for us in a very dynamic way. It is a curved column of bones, cushioned by discs made of strong, dense, fibrous tissue that have constant pressure on them.
These discs, when placed in an optimal environment, are very resilient. They are built to withstand considerable amounts of force, and spines with structural integrity usually maintain well even in the presence of this constant force.
However, certain things can compromise the structural integrity of these discs, leading to disc-related injuries. As with any type of injury, there is a spectrum of severity of these disc injuries. Very severe cases require surgical repair. The majority of them, though, are mild-to-moderate, and can usually be successfully treated by chiropractic care.
What is a Herniated Disc?
There are 24 individual vertebrae that make up the spinal column. These interlocking vertebrae are separated by intervertebral discs that cushion the bones and prevent rubbing friction. These discs are made up of two parts, the inner nucleus, and the outer annulus ‘rings’. The gel-filled nucleus acts as a dense core, allowing flexibility to the vertebrae as they move. The annulus is made up of crisscrossing fibrous rings that help give the disc structure as force is applied.
This structure allows for all types of movement of the spine, while remaining strong and minimizing the likelihood of tearing.
A herniated disc occurs when the nucleus breaks through the annulus rings (usually starting from the innermost ring, and working outward), which causes a ‘bulge’ from the herniation to place undue pressure on a nearby nerve. Many individuals may remain unaware of their herniated disc unless local nerves are affected.
The signs and symptoms of a herniated disc are oftentimes different than typical back pain. Common symptoms include numbness, weakness, or tingling in the:
These symptomatic areas correspond with the area of the spine that the nerve root – the nerve as it exits the spinal cord – is affected. A herniated disc most typically occurs in the lower back, but may also happen in the neck or cervical vertebrae.
What Causes a Herniated Disc?
As stated above, our structure is very purposeful. When we seek to understand what optimal spinal structure and biomechanics looks like, it is fairly easy to spot the type of dysfunction that ultimately leads to disc herniation.
Think about how a bridge is structured. If there are any points along a bridge that are structurally compromised, any wear-and-tear from cars driving over it will be sure to cause damage, if not collapse. Our spines are very similar. One common structural cause of disc injuries is called lumbosacral hyperlordosis – or excess curvature in the low back – which can cause these discs to damage if certain forceful activities occur.
What can be very frustrating to people in these circumstances, though, is that if the disc remains in a compromised state for a long enough time, all it takes is a slight movement for the disc to give way.
So there are a number of causes of disc herniation – from sudden injury to chronic degeneration – but the key to success in treating them is figuring out the extent of the herniation.
How to Determine if Chiropractic Care is the Right Choice
Very rarely do we come across patients who are eager to have spinal surgery. So the number one priority for a disc patient is to make sure we are helping them treat their injury appropriately. Plain and simple, sometimes surgery is the only or best option. The most severe types of disc injuries – called extrusions – are very serious and can often cause semi-permanent nerve damage if not quickly dealt with.
But mild-to-moderate herniations are the type that can be very successfully treated with conservative chiropractic care.
The best way to determine the severity of a disc injury is through MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). This will give the practitioner a visual image of the disc and surrounding tissue. Our usual recommendation is to try conservative treatment before going ‘under the knife’, and most of our patients see resolution if they place their focus where it should be.
We are never afraid to refer to a neurosurgeon for those severe cases, though. In these cases, acting fast can save the patient a lot of trouble.
How Chiropractors Treat a Herniated Disc
First and foremost, prevention is the best way to protect yourself against a herniated disc. With regular stretching and strengthening, maintaining correct structure, and avoiding abrupt movements, you can best prevent future disc injury. However, if a disc injury does occur, a chiropractor is often able to provide a safe, non-invasive, and effective way to treat and heal that disc.
It all centers around relieving pressure placed on the associated disc and nerve. Here at Hill Functional Wellness, we have seen great success in treating the vast majority of our herniated disc patients through spinal decompression and chiropractic adjustments.
This form of chiropractic care works by gently stretching the spine to create negative pressure in the disc. Through the use of this therapy, the intervertebral discs are able to retract back into the proper place. This allows the disc nucleus and annulus to heal — along with the irritated nerves. This process also enables the local muscles to regain proper length as the spine returns to its correct positioning. Discs must face equal pressure from all sides to help ensure uneven pressure does not take place — which, as we stated earlier, can lead to further injury.
Every year in the United States, more than 3 million people are diagnosed with herniated discs. Chiropractic care is a safe and effective long-term solution for a large percentage of these herniated discs. Not every herniated disc requires treatment, but if you do suspect you might be suffering from an injury like this, checking in with your local chiropractor is recommended. We are here to help you sort out your issue – and if our office is the right solution for you, we’ll help you work toward independence.