What causes disc herniation?

Although there are many intervertebral discs in the spine, thoracic vertebrae usually stabilise the spine with the help of the ribs. Hence, the problem of herniated dorsal vertebrae is less likely. On the contrary, cervical vertebrae and lumbar vertebrae have a larger range of motion and often bear a heavier weight. Meanwhile, certain bad habits such as incorrect postures, frequently looking down at mobile phones, prolonged sitting or standing at work, frequent bending of the spine, frequent transfer of heavy objects with wrong postures, and giving pressure on the intervertebral discs around the waist when sitting on the sofa will all create pressure on the spine and intervertebral discs. Such wrong habits, if persistent over time, can all trigger disc herniation. In addition, lack of exercise and insufficient flexibility and strength of the back muscles to support the lumbar spine will also increase the risk of disc herniation.

Other reasons such as overweight, aging, and trauma (e.g. car accidents, falls, etc.) can all lead to the condition of disc herniation.

What are the symptoms of disc herniation?

Common signs of disc herniation include weakness, numbness, and tingling sensation. In fact, the degree of disc herniation and the influence on the nerves will affect the severity and location of pain, which does not limit to low back pain. The symptoms mainly occur in three major body regions, including:

1. Sciatica:

The strong radiating pain along the sciatic nerve extends from the lower back through the pelvis and buttocks to the feet, making the lower limbs weak and numb while giving a tingling sensation.


2. Neck pain:

This is a common symptom when the intervertebral discs protrude from the cervical spine, in which the pain radiates down the shoulders to the arms, causing numbness, pain and tingling sensation.


3. Thoracic pain:

The intervertebral discs protrude at the thoracic vertebrae (in the middle of the spine), causing pain throughout the back, which can sometimes extend to the abdomen.

If the protrusion of intervertebral discs becomes severe, the patient may feel simultaneous weakness and numbness, cough or suffer from pain and numbness while sitting up. In worse cases, the patient may lose sensations in the feet and even suffer from incontinence.

Can disc herniation be treated?

General orthopaedic surgeons will examine the nerves of lower extremities and perform clinical diagnosis. If necessary, the patient may be asked to undergo magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in order to obtain a clearer picture on the location of the herniated discs as well as the degree of compression on the nerve tissues.

Sometimes the doctor may choose more conservative treatments, such as prescribing special drugs and physiotherapy in order to alleviate discomfort. In case the pain persists or if the case becomes more severe, surgery is recommended for removing the protruded intervertebral discs. The new minimally invasive surgery can minimise surgical incisions to reduce trauma, speed recovery and reduce the length of hospitalisation. The patient still needs to undergo physiotherapy and strengthen the back muscles after the surgery in order to prevent recurrence of disc herniation.

Tips for preventing disc herniation:

1. Maintain good postures

To avoid triggering disc herniation, maintaining good postures in our everyday life is a crucial step. Those who sit for a long time during work should cultivate a good sitting posture. Try to choose chairs with backrests that can help to support the lumbar spine. Meanwhile, try to avoid prolonged sitting. Avoid using either side of the shoulders when carrying items. Rather, use backpacks to evenly distribute the weight. When the objects are too heavy, avoid directly bending the spine to carry the goods, trolleys should be used to help with the transfer instead.


2. Strengthen the back muscles

Adequate exercise, especially swimming, not only has an anti-inflammatory effect on the joints, but also strengthens the back muscles and helps prevent related diseases. Meanwhile, some simple waist stretching exercises also help to relax the back muscles and increase the flexibility of the spine.


3. Weight reduction and smoking cessation 

Being overweight can increase stress on the spine. Hence, keeping a balanced diet and maintaining a healthy weight can help prevent disc herniation. On other hand, smoking reduces the flow of oxygenated blood, which can accelerate the deterioration of the spine due to insufficient nutrients. That is why smoking cessation can help reduce the risk of disc herniation.

Last Updated: Nov 2019
Please note that all medical health articles featured on our website have been reviewed by Quality Healthcare doctors. The articles are for general information only and are not medical opinions nor should the contents be used to replace the need for personal consultation with a qualified health professional on the reader’s medical condition.