What Causes Herniated Discs?

February 21, 2024
By Nima Salari, M.D. FAAOS
Dr. Salari is a Board-Certified, Fellowship-Trained Orthopedic Spine Surgeon with specialized training in the operative and non-operative treatment of pathologic conditions affecting the spine. He specializes in ultra-minimally invasive endoscopic spine surgery and cervical artificial disc replacement.

To understand herniated disc causes, you need to know how a healthy spine works. A healthy spine comprises a series of vertebrae and spinal discs. Vertebra provide the structure and protection to the spinal cord. The spinal discs act as mini shock absorbers between the hard bones. They give the spine the flexibility to twist, turn and bend.

There are two parts to a disc. The first is the nucleus pulpous, which is a soft jelly-like center of the disc. The jelly absorbs any impact and gives the spine elasticity. The second part is the annulus fibrosus which surrounds the nucleus pulposus and consists of layers of fibrous tissue arranged in concentric rings. It is tougher and more fibrous than the nucleus pulposus, providing stability to the disc and containing the nucleus pulposus within its confines. The annulus fibrosus also helps distribute pressure evenly across the disc during movement and weight-bearing activities.

What Is a Herniated Disc?

Herniated discs are also called slipped or ruptured discs, but they are all the same thing. It is when the nucleus pulpous bulges out through a tear or weakened spot in the annulus fibrosis. This can happen for several reasons, but it often causes the patient severe pain, especially if the herniated disc has compressed any nearby nerves.

Usually, the top of the spine or cervical neck region gets a fair amount of herniated discs, particularly from whiplash patients. The other common area is at the lower lumbar region of the back. The neck and low back sections typically take the most strain when a person picks up heavy objects or gets injured.

Common symptoms include:

  • Local pain – sharp or dull ache
  • Radiating pain that travels from spine out into the arms, or legs
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Muscle weakness

What Causes a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc could come from one specific incident or develop from several factors. Here are the most common causes of herniated discs:

  • Age-related: A lot of things happen as we age. Our hair goes gray, our skin develops wrinkles, and our spinal discs lose some water content, making them less flexible. This hardening results in common tears and ruptures with even the smallest strains.
  • Physical strain and injury: Activities such as heavy lifting, pulling or bending cause strain on our backs. Often, when you pick something up using your back muscles and then twist, that’s when the disc slips. A common cause of a herniated disc in the neck is from injury incidents like a sports tackle or car accident.
  • Repetitive moments: If you have a job that involves repetitive being and lifting, your chances increase that you will herniate a disc.
  • Smoking: Smoking reduces your oxygen supply to your spinal area. The lack of oxygen causes the bones to degenerate as they don’t get the necessary nutrients.

Proactive Measures Against Herniated Discs

If you know that your back is a weak area, either due to age or genetics, you can try several things to avoid getting a herniated disc. The strategies focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and a healthy spine.

Maintaining Good Posture

A good posture helps reduce the risk of back and neck pain, minimizing the likelihood of injuring your spine. It can even improve your circulation and digestion. So, what is a good posture? If you are standing, start with your feet about shoulder-width apart.

Now rock a little and distribute your weight evenly between your feet. Keep your knees slightly bent to ease pressure on the lower back. Then, align your head, shoulders and hips. Your ears should be in line with your shoulders. Roll your shoulders a few times. Then, as they roll back, release them.

It isn’t only when you are standing that you should watch your posture. A good posture is also important when you are walking and sitting. When sitting, keep your feet firmly flat on the floor and your knees slightly lower than your hips. If you are working on a computer, keep the screen at eye level so you don’t strain your neck muscles. When you are walking, keep your head level. Try not to look down at your feet too much. Let your arms swing naturally at your sides.

Posture even matters when you sleep. Use pillows or get a mattress that supports your body’s natural curves so you can maintain a good posture while you rest.

Exercise Regularly

When you exercise, focus on your core and back muscles. A general overall tone is ideal. You can achieve this with regular walking or doing yoga and tai chi. Those latter options improve your flexibility and stretch the back, hamstrings and hip flexors. If you want to focus specifically on your core and back, talk to a physical therapist about exercises best suited for you.

They will probably suggest something along the lines of plank exercises, abdominal crunches and pilates. You can focus specifically on the back by doing rowing exercises, using resistance bands and doing pull-ups. A fun exercise is to work on your balance training. You can get a personal trainer or a friend to help you. Work on standing on one leg and using a balance board.

Over time, you will find the exercises you start with might not be as challenging as they used to be. This is because your body is becoming stronger. Ideally, you will want to change your exercises as you progress. Now and then, when you find that what you are doing is getting easy, up the level and do something a little more advanced.

Lift Properly

You may have heard before that you should lift with your knees. But how do you do this? You can lift properly by following these easy steps:

  • Plan your lift: Before you start, step back and plan how you will lift the object. Check the weight and stability. If it is too heavy, ask for assistance.
  • Stand close to the object: Position yourself as close as possible to the object. The trick here is to bring the center of gravity as close to your body as possible to reduce the amount of strain on your back.
  • Adopt a stable stance: Remember to keep your feet shoulder-length apart and your knees bent. This is both a good foundation for lifting and a good posture.
  • Squat: Squat to pick up the object. Your leg muscles are stronger than your back muscles, so stand up with your legs. Remember to not twist at all during this stage.
  • Keep the load close to your body: Hold the load as close as possible to your body. Try to keep it waist level. Avoid any jerking movements, and try to stay controlled.
  • Pivot your feet: Don’t ever twist your back with a load. Keep your back straightened, and use your feet to pivot and move.
  • Set it down gently: Once you have moved the object, gently place it back on the ground. Don’t get your fingers or toes jammed in the process.

Reach out to Desert Institute for Spine Care

If you think you have a herniated disc, reach out to us. We use minimally invasive surgery to relieve pain and discomfort and give you a permanent solution. Because our method only requires a small incision, patients tend to recover faster and have less risk than other practices.

Contact us today, and let’s get your spine healthy again.

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