Diagnosis of herniated discs

Marc Darrow, MDMarc Darrow, MD

In our practice we often see patients who are in severe back pain with an MRI, X-ray and/or scan that shows an inaccurate picture to determining a treatment plan. For instance, a patient can have muscle spasm from a simple back strain which can cause excruciating pain and may limit one’s ability to walk or even stand. Conversely, a large herniated disc may be completely painless. Yet that large herniated disc will send the patient for a surgery.

As stated, in our practice, we often see patients who have a diagnosis of herniated discs based on pain in their back and pain in their legs.

Upon a physical examination, we often find that it is not a disc problem but referral pain from a ligament meaning they have a sprain.

This is difficult for people to understand because they see the MRI. After a visit to the orthopedic surgeon or the neurosurgeon, they come in with a recommendation for surgery because MRI revealed herniation. We have seen patients with discs sticking out as much as 10 millimeters, and that would seem to be what is causing pain, but it is not because it is not pressing on a nerve.

So when we check in the back or neck area we look for trigger points – areas of the body that when we press on them it refers pain somewhere else in the body. You just can’t read an MRI to decide what is going on with a patient, you have to use your hands and do an examination.

Back pain not coming from herniated discs

There are many structures in the lower back that can cause severe pain. These include muscles, ligaments, tendons, bones, joints and discs. The outer rim of the disc can be a source of significant back pain due to its rich nerve supply and tendency towards injury.

During our development, there is a great deal of overlap of nerve supply to all of these structures. This makes it nearly impossible for the brain to distinguish between injury to one structure versus another. For example, a torn or herniated disc can feel identical to a bruised muscle or ligament injury. This is where an examination into the cause of the pain is important; each of these different structures may need a different type of treatment to resolve your pain.

Mechanical back pain

Back pain can be divided into three large classifications. The most common condition is known as axial, or mechanical back pain. It is estimated that 90% of low back pain is of this nature and stems from soft tissue sprains and strains and disc herniation from lifting, bending, or wear and tear.

This pain can run the gamut from a very sharp to a dull ache. It may occur all the time, or it may come and go. It also varies in intensity from very mild to extremely severe. One patient may report that his/ her lower back is only sore when having been seated for a long time, or after working in the garden. Another patient may report severe, debilitating pain and need assistance to walk or stand, or even to get up from a sitting position. While one patient is perfectly straight, the other is bent over and locked in a crooked posture. The one thing that is common in these conditions is that the pain is restricted to the lower back area.

This most common type of problem, mechanical back pain, is completely non-specific with regards to the injured structure or structures. Generally, the pain gets worse with certain activities or positions. It is usually relieved by rest or changing positions. Note, extended bed rest may aggravate this type of problem.

This condition responds extremely well to conservative care. At times, spinal manipulation alone is the “miracle” affording immediate relief. More often, the injury involves more than just a misalignment of a vertebrae or of your pelvis. nerves, muscles, tendons, ligaments and skin can all have an influence on the degree of discomfort. And each of these may need to be addressed to attain relief.

If you have multiple episodes of this type of pain, you will want to engage yourself in a rehabilitation program to help resolve the underlying causes of the problem. Here, the diagnosis goes farther than just finding out what is causing the pain, but additionally centers on what weakness or restriction you have that ultimately causes you to have an episode. Here again, we function much like a “coach”, finding the cause(s) and helping to direct you towards ways of avoiding and limiting future bouts with pain.

The most common type of back pain is known as referred pain. Here, patients complain of having an achy, dull type of pain that seems to move around. The discomfort comes and goes and varies in intensity. This achy pain starts in the low back area and commonly spreads into the groin, buttocks and upper thighs.

The treatment options here are similar to those used in treating axial pain. Diagnostic and therapeutic measures are aimed at correcting abnormalities in the muscles, ligaments and small joints of the spine.

The last type of back pain is known as radicular pain. In this case, the pain is described as deep and usually constant. It follows the nerve down the leg and is often accompanied by numbness or tingling and muscle weakness.

The most common example of this type of problem is the sciatic pain that radiates along that sciatic nerve – down the back of the thigh and calf into the foot. This type of pain is caused by injury to a spinal nerve. Some of the possible causes of this are a disc protrusion or bulge, arthritic changes or a narrowing of the opening through which the nerve exits.

While a few of these cases will require surgery, most respond to conservative care. Here the care will consist of multiple therapies, all designed to reduce inflammation, balance your posture, strengthen supporting structures, attain normal motion and improve the health of the nerve that is involved.

In all types of back pain, your health habits play an important role. For example, there are certain foods that are high in the fats that cause more inflammation. Limiting intake of these animal fats and increasing your intake of the good fats that reduce inflammation may play an important role in your healing. Smoking is another health concern. Statistically, smokers are slow healers with respect to back pain.

An important part in prevention is keeping these back muscles active and in good tone.

One of the most important areas in chronic back pain management is the strength of your abdominal wall and your pelvic floor. There are three major abdominal muscles, each with small subdivisions. Any weakness in one of these sections can be the root cause of a chronic back problem. Weakness in these structures causes your back muscles to tighten and shorten. This adversely affects the lower back on the small joints and discs.

So was does the disc get so much attention!
Because the disc can be easily seen on MRIs and ligament and tendon strains cannot!

Prolotherapy research herniated discs

Dagenais S, Haldeman S, Wooley JR. Intraligamentous injection of sclerosing solutions (prolotherapy) for spinal pain: a critical review of the literature. Spine J. 2005 May-Jun;5(3):310-28.

Prolotherapy describes a variety of treatment approaches rather than a specific protocol. Results from clinical studies published to date indicate that it may be effective at reducing spinal pain. Great variation was found in the injection and treatment protocols used in these studies that preclude definite conclusions. Future research should focus on those solutions and protocols that are most commonly used in clinical practice and have been used in trials reporting effectiveness to help determine which patients, if any, are most likely to benefit from this treatment.


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