Understanding Herniated Disc Injuries
Because back injuries are so common, there is a tendency to lump them all together. Every type of back injury is the same, it seems. But that medically isn’t the case, and while a herniated disc seems to be a phrase that’s used quite often, for every back injury, the reality is that it is a term that actually means something very serious.
How the Back Works
To understand what a herniated disc is, it is helpful to understand the basic anatomy of the spine. As you have probably seen from medical models or skeletons, your back is made up of interconnected bones. These bones are called vertebrae.
The bones are there for protection, because in between those bones are where the nerves of your spinal cord run.
But if your back was just one long series of bones, you wouldn’t be able to move the way that a human being has to move (you’d also be in some pain, as your bony vertebrae would be grinding against each other).
To allow your back the flexibility it needs—as well as the ability to bear the load of your body—between those vertebrae are jelly like discs.
Damage to the Discs
When you suffer a back injury that is serious enough you can do damage to those jelly like discs. They can, with enough force or impact, jut out into the spinal column. The disc itself can jut into and impede the spinal column, or the disc can completely rupture or herniate and the insides of the disc can push against the spinal column.
The spinal column is now having pressure put on it, and since your spinal column is nerves, you feel pain—in some cases you may have more than pain, and may have numbness or tingling in your extremities or difficulty controlling your bowel or bladder.
In very serious cases, a disc can rupture so much, or a vertebrae can be pushed so far out of place, that it can completely impede the nerves in your spinal column, leading to full or partial paralysis.
That is, of course the most serious situation; not every herniated disc results in paralysis. But it can lead to long term pain.
Many times your discs can be pushed out of place by other things like old age as the discs lose flexibility or “flatten out.” Doctors can usually tell whether your herniated disc is caused by old age, or whether it is caused by an accident.
Diagnosing a herniated disc can be difficult, because an MRI is needed, and many hospital emergency rooms don’t give MRIs.
A traditional X-ray will just show your vertebrae. In some cases, vertebrae that are so close together can be an indication of a herniated disc, even without an MRI being taken, but for a definite diagnosis, your doctor should perform an MRI to see if you have a herniation, and whether it is minor, or something more severe.