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Is It a Slipped Disc or Something Else?

Are you hunched over when you get out of bed in order to avoid the debilitating pain that comes with straightening your back? Does turning a doorknob or reaching for something make you wince? Do you have pain that shoots down your leg?

These symptoms, and more, are the telltale signs of a disc problem, but not always. At Douglas J. Abeles MD & Associates, we treat many types of back problems in our patients in Castro Valley, California, and while disc issues are common, they’re not the only offenders. Your spine is an incredibly complex structure with primary and secondary players, and there’s a lot that can go wrong. Let’s take a look.

Backing up a step

Before we dive into the issues that may be causing your back pain, it might help to step back for a moment and review the structure of your back. At its heart lies your spinal column, which is made up of 33 vertebrae and 23 discs. Only 24 of your vertebrae are articulating, meaning they allow movement.

From a musculoskeletal perspective, your spine does all the heavy lifting when it comes to the support and mobility of your entire body. To help out, there are muscles, ligaments, and tendons that connect everything together in such a way that provides support and safeguards for your spine.

A disc problem

Herniated disc, slipped disc, ruptured disc, pinched nerve — these are all different names for the same condition. Your discs are round, cushiony structures located between your vertebrae, and they act as mini shock absorbers and keep your vertebrae from rubbing together. If the outer layer of your disc ruptures, the liquidy substance inside leaks out from between your vertebrae and can irritate the nerves in the area.

In most cases, this occurs in your low back, which is subject to the most amount of wear and tear, though it can also occur in your neck. Surprisingly, many people may have a herniated disc and don’t even know it, because of nothing more than hit-or-miss luck. If the protruding disc hits a nerve, you have pain; if it doesn’t, you’re in luck.

Since you’re reading this, you’re probably not one of the lucky ones, so let’s assume you’ve struck a nerve. Now it becomes a matter of which nerve root you’ve struck. If it’s localized, you’ll feel pain in that immediate area. If, however, your sciatic nerve is involved, your pain may radiate down through one side of your buttocks and down your leg.

By the same token, if you have a slipped disc in your neck, the pain may also radiate through your shoulder and arm.

In less common cases, your pain may be because of a problem in your disc space itself and not because the a nerve root has been affected. This type of pain is referred to as axial pain.

A narrow view

Another fairly common cause of back pain is spinal stenosis, which is when your spinal canal narrows over time. This narrowing creates pressure on your nerves, which can lead to radiating pain, weakness, and numbness in your low back and in your neck. In a classic case of lumbar stenosis, you may find yourself walking bent forward in order to avoid the pain that standing up straight causes.

Broken vertebra

If your back pain comes on suddenly, and you’re unable to move without pain, you may have fractured a vertebra. While most people associate broken bones with an acute injury, if you have osteoporosis, fractures can occur without you knowing it. Of course, if you took a spill going down the stairs, and you’re left with severe back pain, diagnosis of your back pain may be fairly simple.

Sprains and strains

When you strain a muscle or pull a ligament in your back, especially your low back, the resulting inflammation can cause anything from mild to severe pain, especially if your muscles spasm. This intense pain may last for a few hours, or a few days, but typically starts to die down as your body sets to work to heal the area. While the intense pain may be short-lived, you may feel fairly sore for several weeks, depending upon the extent of the strain or sprain.

Back pain is, at its best, a major nuisance, and at its worst, it can lay you out flat. Whether it’s a slipped disc or a broken vertebra, the most important step is to see us for a diagnosis so we can relieve your immediate pain and get you started on a long-term treatment. Call Douglas J. Abeles MD & Associates, or use the online booking tool to schedule an appointment.

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