Our spines are comprised of multiple bones called vertebra that rest one on top of another. There is a cushion between each bone that acts as a shock absorber and maintains the spacing between each bone. These shock absorbers are called intervertebral disks. Injury, aging, and rarely infection can cause the intervertebral disks to fail and rupture and protrude from their normal position. This is known as a herniated disk. The herniated disk material can put pressure on nearby nerves causing severe pain, very often traveling down and arm or a leg.
One complication of herniated disks in the low back is sciatica. The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that is forms from nerve roots exiting the spine in the lower back. A herniated disk at these levels in the lower back can cause severe pain that radiates down the leg. Sciatica is a common cause for visits to the emergency department because the pain is often severe and debilitating during attacks.
While many small herniated disks can heal on their own, larger herniated disks may require surgical repair or treatment by a pain management specialist. If you have sudden back or neck pain, especially if it is traveling down your leg or your arm, then your may have a herniated disk with compression of a nerve. The initial treatment is pain control and selected cases may need advanced imaging to visualize the exact nature of the problem. The goal in most cases is to resolve the pain and allow the disk to heal on its own without surgery. However, sometimes surgery is required to remove a portion of the intervertebral disk that is pressing on a nerve.