A herniated disc occurs when the annulus (the outer fiber) of a disc is damaged and the soft material inside the disc ruptures beyond its normal space. If the annulus tears near the spinal canal, the soft material inside the disc can push into the spinal canal.
A herniated disc in the thoracic spine can be very serious, as there is very little extra space around the spinal cord in the thoracic area. When a herniated disc occurs in this area, the pressure on the spinal cord can cause paralysis below the waist. Fortunately, herniated discs are much more common in the lumbar spine, where they are not as serious.
Below you can learn about the causes and symptoms of herniated discs. Please contact our office for additional information.
Herniated discs can occur in children, although they are much more common in adults. They generally occur in middle-aged adults, and are often located in the lower back. Disc herniations in the thoracic spine mostly affect people between age 40 and 60. In older adults, the degenerative changes that occur in the spine with aging make it less likely for them to suffer from a truly herniated disc.
A disc can rupture suddenly when too much pressure is applied to it all at once. For example, falling from a ladder and landing in a sitting position can put a great amount of force on the spine. If the force is strong enough, either a vertebra can break or a disc can rupture. Bending can also put a large amount of stress on the discs between each vertebra. If you bend and try to lift something that is too heavy, the force can cause a disc to rupture.
A disc can also rupture from a small amount of force, usually due to a weakening of the annulus from repeated injuries that add up over time. As the annulus becomes weaker, lifting or bending will eventually put too much pressure on the disc and cause it to rupture. Incidents like this are generally due to the effects of aging on the spine, which is the most common cause of disc herniation in the thoracic spine.
The material that has ruptured into the spinal canal from the disc can put pressure on the nerves in the spinal canal. There is also some evidence that the material from inside the disk causes a chemical irritation of the nerve roots. Both the pressure on the nerve root and the chemical irritation can lead to serious nerve problems. The combination of nerve root pressure and chemical irritation can also cause pain, weakness, and numbness in the area of the body to which the nerve supplies sensation (feeling).
Pain is almost always first symptom of a herniated disc. The pain is most often felt in the back, directly over the sore disc. If the herniated disc is in the thoracic spine, then the pain may also radiate to the front of the chest. Pressure or irritation on the nerves in the thoracic area can also cause other symptoms. Depending on which nerves are affected, a thoracic disc herniation can include pain that feels like it is coming from the heart, abdomen, or kidneys.
Herniated thoracic discs sometimes press against the spinal cord. When this happens, symptoms may include:
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