Disc protrusion is a common form of spinal disc deterioration that can cause neck and back pain. Changes occurring with the regular aging process are responsible for disc deteriorations, although an injury might speed the degenerative process. However, a protruding disc may go undetected unless it encroaches upon a nearby nerve.
When functioning correctly, the spinal vertebrae are cushioned by pliable, oval-shaped “discs” that essentially act as shock absorbers for the neck and back. Over time, however, discs deteriorate and might bulge beyond their normal anatomical positions in the spinal column.
Discs usually degenerate in stages:
- With age, all body parts change, including the components of the spine. Discs dehydrate and lose elasticity. This weakens the disc and makes it more vulnerable to change.
- The first stage following natural weakening may be classified as a disc protrusion, when the disc’s core that is contained within the disc’s outer fibro-elastic wall has begun pushing into the spinal column. Disc protrusions may involve 180 degrees or less of the disc’s circumference.
- The next stage of disc deterioration is often a bulging disc, when the disc’s inner material, called nucleus pulposus, moves further around the disc circumference beyond its normal parameters as it pushes into the disc’s fibro-elastic outer wall, called the annulus fibrosus, creating a bulge. A bulging disc is said to involve more than half (more than 180 degrees) of the disc’s circumference.
- The final stage may be a herniated disc, which means the disc’s outer wall finally tears, allowing the inner nucleus pulposus material to escape containment by the outer wall.
- It is important to remember that different health care providers may use terms like “bulging disc,” “disc protrusion,” and “herniated disc” interchangeably, so you may want to ask for clarification if these terms are discussed during your diagnosis.
The spinal canal is home to the spinal cord and dozens of nerve roots that branch off the spinal cord, exit the spine and continue to the bodily areas they serve. When a disc protrudes into the limited space of the spinal canal, the disc might place compressive pressure on, irritate or otherwise interfere with a nerve root or the spinal cord. It is this nerve compression that causes the most serious disc protrusion symptoms, including:
- Local, chronic neck and back pain
- Pain, numbness and tingling in the extremities
- Loss of flexibility or mobility
- Stiffness or soreness
- Muscle weakness
An individual’s specific symptoms depend entirely on the location of the disc disorder and the degree of pressure placed on surrounding tissue. For example, a cervical disc protrusion (in the neck) can cause shoulder symptoms, while a lumbar disc protrusion (in the lower back) may be responsible for leg weakness. Thoracic disc protrusion (in the middle spine) is relatively rare but can occur. The protrusion’s origin in the spine and the severity of the disc compression will determine the range and intensity of symptoms.
Correctly diagnosing a disc protrusion typically requires the use of medical imagery, a detailed medical history and thorough examination by a physician. Conservative disc protrusion treatment methods are often quite effective and typically include massage, bed rest, physical therapy and pain medications. Spine surgery is only considered when conservative treatment of the disorder has proven ineffective or a patient’s symptoms are extreme and debilitating.
If you are suffering from a disc protrusion and non-surgical conservative treatment has failed, contact Laser Spine Institute. We treat disc protrusion with minimally invasive procedures that incorporate the latest technology. Laser Spine Institute’s procedures are outpatient surgeries designed to relieve symptoms without the extended recovery and rehabilitation periods associated with traditional open back surgery. To learn more about disc protrusion, or for a review of your MRI or CT scan, contact Laser Spine Institute today.