This Is What Really Happens When You Have A Herniated Disc

Vertebrae are the bones of the spine, which encase the spinal cord and offer outlets for nerves to branch off the main spinal cord to the rest of the body, according to Cleveland Clinic. In total, there are 33 vertebrae in a human adult. In addition to housing the all-important spinal cord, the vertebrae are also responsible for neck and back movement. 

Each vertebra is stacked between two discs that act as shock absorbers, creating a cushion, so the bones don't rub against each other (via American Association of Neurological Surgeons). The discs are composed of a tough outer layer known as the annulus and a gel-like center called the nucleus. Naturally, these discs begin to deteriorate with age, and the ligaments that hold them in place begin to weaken. Both age and injury are factors that can increase the risk of a herniated disc, which occurs when the disc tears and the inner nucleus leaks out, pushing against the spinal cord or nearby nerves. This can lead to some pretty significant pain. 

Symptoms and treatment options for herniated discs

If a disc herniates but does not press against a nerve or the spinal cord, you may experience little or no pain, according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. However, if a nerve is pressed, it can cause pain and other symptoms such as numbness, tingling, burning sensations, or weakness in the arms or legs, depending upon where the affected nerve is.

Treatment often includes rest, over-the-counter pain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen, and applying heat or ice to areas with pain (via Cleveland Clinic). Consider speaking with your doctor if symptoms don't improve after four to six weeks, if you have trouble standing or walking, or if the pain interferes with your daily activities. Your healthcare provider may recommend muscle relaxants or therapeutic interventions, including electrical stimulation, massage, ultrasound therapy, and stretching. In more severe cases, spinal injections, such as epidurals or surgery, may be necessary to reduce pain and other symptoms.