How Serious Is a Torn Spinal Disc?

spinal disc injury

In many cases, when an individual suffers a torn spinal disc, also commonly referred to as a “herniated” disc, they only have a few symptoms to let them know that their spine has been injured and therefore do not seek treatment for the condition. Other people, however, can experience a great deal of pain in the area of the damaged disc, as well as added pain in the arms and legs. 

Because vertebral discs can function normally even with small tears and a torn disc can usually heal on its own within a month, the condition is generally not serious. If symptoms are present, they can often be treated through non-surgical methods, including the provision of over-the-counter medication, rest, and heat or ice packs. Orthopedic & Laser Spine Surgery can help you figure out how serious your torn spinal disc is, along with figuring out if you need added treatment. 

What Causes Torn Spinal Discs?

Between the vertebrae of the spine, there are small, rubbery cushions known as discs. The spinal discs are made up of a soft, jelly-like center known as a nucleus which is wrapped within a tough, rubbery exterior known as an annulus. As people grow older, these discs become less flexible and are prone to rupturing or tearing. Torn spinal discs most commonly occur in the lower back as a combination of age-related wear and tear or through a trauma such as improper body position when lifting a heavy weight. 

There are several factors that can increase a person’s risk of incurring a herniated disc, such as being overweight, having a job that requires a lot of heavy lifting or bending, smoking cigarettes (which decreases oxygen supply to the discs, or leading a sedentary lifestyle.

How a Torn Disc is Diagnosed

As noted, many disc tears do not present symptoms. However, people can experience pain in the area of the spine where the tear is located, as well as numbness or tingling. For those with a torn disc in the upper back, the symptoms can extend to the shoulder and arms. Also, for people with a torn spinal disc in the lower back, numbness and tingling can be experienced in the buttocks, legs, and feet.

When a patient seeks a diagnosis of this pain, the doctor will talk with you about your symptoms and your medical history. They will also perform a physical examination to determine where the tenderness is located by asking you to move in various positions. Your reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation will likely also be examined. While doctors can often diagnose torn discs through physical examination, diagnostic imaging tests such as an MRI are often an important tool, as it allows the doctor to see the details of the disc, including the nucleus and annulus.

Can Torn Spinal Discs Be Prevented?

Small tears in the spinal disc are common as individuals age, and certain causes of torn discs, such as genetic predisposition to the condition or accidental injuries, cannot always be avoided. However, there are some precautions you can take to prevent many of the causes of torn discs, such as:

  • Using proper lifting techniques when lifting or moving heavy objects, such as not bending at the waist.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight to avoid the additional strain that being overweight places on the spine.
  • Avoiding wearing high-heeled shoes that force the spine into an improper alignment.
  • Practicing good posture, stretching after sitting for long periods, and exercising regularly 
  • Quitting smoking, as smoking often results in excessive coughing, which places additional pressure on the spinal discs.

Disc tears are most commonly suffered by men between the ages of 30-50 who either have a job that requires long periods of sitting or heavy lifting. If you are in such a position, maintaining a healthy weight and exercising regularly are key to preventing this type of injury.

When Is Surgery Needed to Treat the Condition?

Because the spinal discs can heal from small tears on their own, surgery is rarely needed to repair a torn disc. However, if the patient has been treated without success through non-surgical methods for a number of weeks, surgery may be an option that the patient and their doctor consider, particularly if prescription medications have been unable to control the pain, or if the patient is experiencing difficulty walking or standing as a result of the condition.

There are several surgical options available for treating torn discs. It is important to ask your doctor about any minimally invasive procedures they offer, which result in fewer complications and a shorter recovery time.

If You Have Symptoms of a Torn Disc, Reach Out to OLSS

Experiencing pain or other symptoms in the spine can be a stressful situation. Many of our patients with spinal disc tears come to us with worries of cancer or a serious injury that will require surgery and result in months of recovery. Luckily, most spinal disc tears are not serious and can be treated without the need for invasive procedures.

If you are experiencing pain, numbness, and tingling, let the experienced medical team at Orthopedic & Laser Spine Surgery help you determine the cause of these symptoms and develop a treatment plan that works for you and your lifestyle. We have a focus on providing the most advanced and minimally invasive procedures in order to reduce recovery time and get you back to your life as quickly as possible. To schedule a consultation, contact us online or call us at (855) 853-6542.