While disc extrusion causes can vary, the end result is basically the same – the outer wall of an intervertebral disc, the annulus fibrosus, develops a tear and leaks the disc’s inner disc material, the nucleus pulposus, into the spinal canal. By itself, the tear is usually not painful or may produce nothing more than a mild ache. However, when the disc fluid intrudes on nearby spinal nerves or the spinal cord itself, you may experience symptoms like tingling, numbness, weakness and pain. Causes of a disc extrusion, or a herniated disc, can include traumatic injury, overexertion, illness and obesity, but the most common cause is degeneration that accompanies the natural aging process.
The degenerative side of disc extrusion
As the body ages, years of wear and tear can take their toll on the spine. The cartilaginous intervertebral discs that separate adjacent vertebrae and absorb shock are especially prone to deterioration over time. The spinal anatomy can be affected by age in the following ways:
- Dehydration – the discs begin to lose water content and collagen. They become thinner, less elastic and less able to absorb the pressures of the body’s day-to-day movements.
- Bulging disc – the disc can begin to bulge outside of its normal perimeter. This occurs because the disc’s core, the nucleus pulposus, is pressing on the weakened disc wall, and because the disc itself is under pressure from surrounding vertebrae.
- Disc protrusion – this is a more severe form of bulging disc, where the disc is still intact but has protruded even farther into the spinal canal. A protrusion may involve up to 180 degrees of the disc’s circumference.
- Disc extrusion – the disc wall finally develops a tear under such a large amount of pressure and the inner disc material extrudes into the spinal canal, possibly exerting pressure on nearby spinal nerve roots or the spinal cord.
Conservative treatment options
The good news is that, despite the serious nature of its causes and the fact that aging cannot be prevented, a disc extrusion can sometimes heal on its own without surgery. Your physician may recommend a regimen of conservative disc extrusion treatments, such as pain medication, hot-cold compresses, behavior modification and gentle stretching. If weeks or months of these treatments do not help your disc extrusion symptoms to abate, Laser Spine Institute may be able to help. Our outpatient procedures are a welcome alternative to traditional open-spine surgery. Contact us today for more information and a complimentary review of your MRI or CT scan.