As a disc degenerates, the soft inner gel in the disc can leak back into the spinal canal. This is known as disc herniation, or herniated disc. Once inside the spinal canal, the herniated disc material then puts pressure on the nerve, causing pain to radiate down the nerve leading to sciatica or leg pain (from a lumbar herniated disc) or arm pain (from a cervical herniated disc).

Lumbar Herniated Disc

Lumbar Herniated disc (HNP) can lead to what is commonly called “sciatica”. The lumbar spine consists of the bone, “vertebrae,” and in between the vertebrae are disc. The discs can be thought of as shock absorbers or cushions between the vertebrae. Typically the herniated disc irritates the sciatic nerve. Sciatica describes the symptoms of leg pain and possibly tingling, numbness or weakness that originated in the lower back and travels through the buttock and down the sciatic nerve in the back of the leg.

Sciatica or HNP can be acute (short term) lasting a few weeks, or chronic (long term) persisting for more than 3 months. It is important to understand that most HNP will resolve itself within a few weeks or months and rarely cause permanent nerve damage. In most cases if a patients low back and or leg pain is going to get better it will do so within six weeks.

Several of the most common nonsurgical treatments for herniated disc include:

  • Physical Therapy
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Oral Steroids
  • Epidural steroid injection

Lumbar Herniated Disc Surgery

If the pain and other symptoms continue after six weeks, and if the pain is sever, it is reasonable to consider microdiscectomy surgery. Surgery may be recommended to alleviate the pain from the herniated disc material. The entire disc is not removed, but the part that is damaged is removed.

  • Lumbar Microdiscectomy

Cervical Herniated Disc

Arm pain from a cervical herniated disc is one of the more common cervical spine conditions treated by spine specialists. It usually develops in the 30 – 50 year old age group. Although a cervical herniated disc may originate from some sort of trauma or injury to the cervical spine, the symptoms, including arm pain, commonly start spontaneously. Along with the arm pain, numbness and tingling can be present down the arm and into the fingertips. Muscle weakness may also be present due to a cervical herniated disc.

Since there is not a lot of disc material between the vertebral bodies in the cervical spine the discs are usually not very large. However, the space available for the nerves is also not that great, which means that even a small cervical disc herniation may impinge on the nerve and cause significant pain. The arm pain is usually most severe as the nerve first becomes pinched.

Nonsurgical treatments for Cervical Herniated Disc

  • Physical Therapy
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Cervical Traction
  • Bracing
  • Epidural steroid injections
  • Activity modification

Cervical Herniated Disc Surgery

Most episodes of arm pain will resolve over a period of weeks to months. However, if the pain lasts longer than 6 to 12 weeks, or if the pain and disability is severe, spine surgery may be a reasonable option. It is very important to speak to your doctor about your surgical options.

  • Anterior cervical discectomy and spine fusion
  • Anterior discectomy without spine fusion
  • Posterior cervical discectomy

Thoracic Herniated Disc

A thoracic herniated disc can cause upper back pain and other symptoms, such as radiating pain or numbness. Specific symptoms of a thoracic herniated disc are usually different depending on where the disc herniates. Patients commonly feel a band of pain that goes around the front of the chest or abdominal area. A lower thoracic disc herniation can cause pain in the groin or lower limbs. Doctors typically classify thoracic herniated discs as being caused by:

  • Degenerative Disc Disease. This is the gradual wear and tear on the disc over time.
  • Trauma to the upper back. This is a traumatic event that has taken place that caused an abrupt onset of symptoms. Any injury that causes a high degree of sudden force such as a car accident or sudden fall on the discs could lead to a thoracic herniated disc.

Nonsurgical treatments for Thoracic Herniated Disc:

  • Rest/Activity modification
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Epidural Steroid Injection
  • Physical Therapy

Thoracic Herniated Disc Surgery

Thoracic herniated disc surgery is indicated when a herniated disc leads to myelopathy (spinal cord dysfunction), progressive neurological deficits, or intolerable pain. Typically, these symptoms will occur if there is an acute traumatic herniated disc with myelopathy. Some possible surgical options are:

  • Costotransversectomy
  • Transthoracic Decompression
  • Video Assisted Thoracoscopy Surgery (VATS)
  • Fusion