Lower Back Issues

Lumbar Disc Herniation

Causes
Herniation occurs when the nucleus in the center of the disc pushes out of its normal space. The nucleus presses against the annulus, causing the disc to bulge outward. Sometimes the nucleus herniates completely through the annulus and squeezes out of the disc.

Although daily activities may cause the nucleus to press against the annulus, the body is normally able to withstand this pressure. However, as the annulus ages, it tends to crack and tear. It is repaired with scar tissue. This process is known as degeneration. Over time, the annulus weakens, and the nucleus may begin to herniate (squeeze) through the damaged annulus. At first, the pressure bulges the annulus outward. Eventually, the nucleus may herniate completely through the outer ring of the disc.

Vigorous, repetitive bending, twisting, and lifting can place abnormal pressure on the shock-absorbing nucleus of the disc. If great enough, this increased pressure can injure the annulus, leading to herniation.

A lumbar disc can also become herniated during an acute (sudden) injury. Lifting with the trunk bentforward and twisted can cause a disc herniation. A disc can also herniate from a heavy impact on the spine, such as falling from a ladder and landing in a sitting position.

Herniation causes pain from a variety of sources. It can cause mechanical pain. This is pain that comes from the parts of the spine that move during activity, such as the discs and ligaments. Pain from inflammation occurs when the nucleus squeezes through the annulus. The nucleus normally does not come in contact with the body’s blood supply. However, a tear in the annulus puts the nucleus at risk for contacting this blood supply. When the nucleus herniates into the torn annulus, the nucleus and blood supply meet, causing a reaction of the chemicals inside the nucleus. This produces inflammation and pain. A disc herniation may also put pressure against a spinal nerve. Pressure on an irritated or damaged nerve can produce pain that radiates along the nerve. This is called neurogenic pain.

Symptoms
Many cases of lumbar disc herniation result from degenerative changes in the spine. The changes that eventually lead to a disc herniation produce symptoms gradually. At first, complaints may only be dull pain centered in the low back, pain that comes and goes over a period of a few years. Doctors think this is mainly from small tears in the annulus. Larger cracks in the annulus may spread pain into the buttocks or lower limbs.

When the disc herniates completely through the annulus, it generally causes immediate symptoms, with sharp pain that starts in one hip and shoots down part or all of the leg. Commonly, patients no longer feel their usual back pain, only leg pain. This is likely because painful tension on the annulus releases when the nucleus pushes completely through.

Disc herniations produce inflammation when the nucleus comes in contact with the body’s blood supply (mentioned earlier). The inflammation can be a source of throbbing pain in the low back and may spread into one or both hips and buttocks.

A herniated disc can press against a spinal nerve, producing symptoms of nerve compression. Nerve pain follows known patterns in the lower limbs. It can be felt on the side of the upper thigh, in the calf, or even in the foot and toes.

Pressure on the nerve can also cause sensations of pins, needles, and numbness where the nerve travels down the lower limbs. If this happens, a person’s reflexes slow. The muscles controlled by the nerve weaken, and sensation in the skin where the nerve goes is impaired.

Rarely, symptoms involve changes in bowel and bladder function. A large disc herniation that pushes straight back into the spinal canal can put pressure on the nerves that go to the bowels and bladder. The pressure may cause low back pain, pain running down the back of both legs, and numbness or tingling between the legs in the area you would contact if you were seated on a saddle. The pressure on the nerves can cause a loss of control in the bowels or bladder. This is an emergency. If the pressure isn’t relieved, it can lead to permanent paralysis of the bowels and bladder. This condition is called cauda equina syndrome. Doctors recommend immediate surgery to remove pressure from the nerves.