What is a herniated disc?
Anatomy of the Spine.
The spine is initially composed of 33 separate bones (or vertebrae). By the time a person becomes an adult, most of us have only 24 vertebrae, because some vertebrae at the bottom end of the spine fuse together during maturity and development.
The vertebrae in the spine have three primary segments. The cervical spine (i.e. the neck) includes 7 vertebrae. The thoracic spine (i.e. the mid-back) includes 12 vertebrae. The lumbar spine (i.e. the low back) has 5 vertebrae.
A disc separates every vertebra in the spinal column. Each intervertebral disc consists of two parts. The inner part of the intervertebral disc is a soft gel-like core that consists mostly of water, and is called the nucleus pulposus. The outer part of the intervertebral disc is a tough fibrous ring called the annulus fibrosus. The intervertebral disc protects the spinal cord and the nerves that exit the column through the neural foramen.
What is a herniated disc?
A herniation is a structural defect in the intervertebral disc. As shown in the diagram below, a herniation occurs when the fibrous ring of the annulus fibrosus ruptures and causes the gel-like material from the nucleus pulposus to exude into the space where the nerves exit the intervertebral disc through the neural foramen. The gel-like material compresses or impinges upon the nerve. The symptoms of the injury (pain, tingling, discomfort, weakness, etc.) extend along the path of the nerve. The pain therefore “radiates” from the source of the injury throughout the body.
How to diagnose a herniated disc?
A herniated disc doesn’t always cause pain or discomfort, but if it pushes against a nerve in the spinal column, then it can. Diagnosing a herniated disc usually starts with subjective complaints from the patient. A herniated disc can become the source of considerable pain and discomfort if it pushes against a nerve. A hallmark of any nerve injury is radiating symptoms. Pain, discomfort, and muscle weakness will radiate down from the source of the impingement to an extremity. For example, a herniation to C4-C5 affects the intervertebral disc between the 4th and 5th vertebrae in the cervical spine. A herniation at this level causes pain, tingling, weakness and/or numbness that radiates into the shoulder and surrounding muscles.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, the second step will be to undergo a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of the cervical spine. An MRI produces 3-D images of the spinal cord and nerve roots, as well as the discs themselves. It can show whether you have damage to the disc, including a herniation. An MRI that shows positive findings at C4-C5, along with subjective complaints of pain/discomfort in the shoulder and surrounding muscles from the patient, will likely lead to a diagnosis for a C4-C5 herniated disc.
Use the same process (subjective complaints followed up by radiology images to confirm) to diagnose a herniated disc anywhere along the intervertebral column.
In sum, if you have suffered a personal injury that resulted in a herniated disc, it is important that you contact an experienced herniated disc injury attorney immediately. These incidents can sometimes settle outside of court. However, where that cannot happen, an attorney can help you file a suit for compensation for pain and suffering, medical bills, lost wages and other damages.
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