It’s estimated that more than three million Americans are living with a herniated disc in their back. After receiving this diagnosis, it’s not uncommon for patients to ask me how it happened. In order to answer that, it’s important to explain how our spine works.
Between each of the bones in our spine we have cartilage cushions that are called discs. These discs give us the flexibility to move and bend our spine. When one of these discs tears or ruptures, that’s when we refer to it as a herniated disc. So what causes a disc to rupture? There are many different reasons such as age, heavy lifting, sports, an injury or trauma, smoking, and being overweight.
Disc herniations in the neck can result in a pinched spinal nerve. When this happens, someone may experience numbness, weakness, or severe pain radiating into their arm or hand. A herniated disc in the neck may also result in a pinched spinal cord. When this occurs, someone may experience numbness in their hands or feet, difficulty using their hands, and trouble with balance. Anyone experiencing these types of symptoms should be evaluated by a medical professional to avoid permanent spinal issues.
Now that we’ve addressed what a herniated disc is and what the symptoms are, there’s another big question — is it fixable? The answer is “yes” — there are surgical treatments. The traditional method of treating a cervical disc herniation is a discectomy and fusion procedure. This procedure is effective, but it was actually developed back in the 1950s, and there are some downsides to fusing the bones in the neck. A cervical disc replacement is a more modern alternative that allows you to preserve range of motion in the neck, and this reduces the risk you might need additional surgery in the future.
I believe that spinal issues should never be taken lightly. So when somebody has an issue with pain in their neck or back, I always make sure to get patients in for an evaluation right away — typically within 24 hours. Anyone dealing with pain should not have to wait. We have options to improve quality of life, and waiting can sometimes make an issue worse.
Dr. Gregory Kuzmik is a neurosurgeon and spine specialist with Hartford HealthCare’s Ayer Neuroscience Institute in Meriden and North Haven. For more information, call 203.694.7550, or visit www.hartfordhealthcare.org/neuro.