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Herniated Disc Defined and Explained




Chances are you’ve heard of herniated discs. However, unless you’ve been diagnosed with this specific condition, it’s likely you don’t know exactly what a herniated disc is, beyond the fact that a herniated disc is located in the spine and can be very painful.

When you are looking for a clearer understanding of what a herniated disc is and why it hurts, taking time to review the basics of spinal anatomy can be helpful.

The beginnings of a herniated disc

Before a herniated disc occurs, it starts out as a healthy intervertebral disc – a strong, pliable cushion that provides your spine with shock absorption and facilitates movement. Your spine starts at the base of the brain and runs down to the lower back. It is made up of 24 individual bones known as vertebrae, plus several fused vertebrae in the pelvic region. The vertebrae themselves are composed of cylindrical bases (known as bodies) and protruding bones known as spinous and transverse processes. The processes are the protrusions you can feel when you touch your spine. There is a hollow arch created by these processes and each vertebral body that, when vertebrae are stacked on top of one another, creates a canal through which the spinal cord runs. Branching off from the length of the spinal cord are spinal nerve roots, which travel through lateral canals (foramina) formed by adjacent vertebrae and exit the spinal column to innervate other areas of the body.

Resting in between your vertebral bodies are the previously mentioned intervertebral discs that act as shock absorbers for the spine. These discs, each composed of a thick wall (known as annulus fibrosus) and a gel-like inner core (nucleus pulposus), facilitate movement and reduce friction between vertebrae. Over time, these discs can degenerate to the point that the outer wall ruptures, and this is called a herniated disc. The gel-like substance from inside the disc can leak out and irritate the disc wall, spinal cord or its protruding nerve roots, causing pain.

What causes a herniated disc?

Herniated discs can arise due to a number of risk factors, including:

  • Genetics – If one or more of your immediate family members have a history of herniated discs or other degenerative spine conditions, you may be more likely to develop similar conditions.
  • The normal aging process – Over time, the spinal components begin to degenerate. Herniated discs and other disc injuries are often the first signs of spinal degeneration and are brought on by the gradual loss of water content within a disc and its resulting weakening.
  • Severe trauma such as a car accident or repetitive stress from extended sitting or heavy lifting – If you endure any form of forceful impact to the spine, it is possible that you’d experience an immediate disc herniation. Repetitive stress and strain also can contribute to a disc’s deterioration, as microscopic tears in a disc’s outer wall (annulus fibrosus) build up over time and continually weaken it.
  • Unhealthy diet – Eating an unbalanced diet with little nutritive value can contribute to disc deterioration not only via weight gain if too many calories are consumed, but also by depriving the spine of the nutrients it needs to remain pliable and strong.
  • Being overweight or having a sedentary lifestyle – Extra weight, particularly in the midsection, can place undue stress on the spinal components, including the intervertebral discs.
  • Abuse of substances including alcohol and tobacco – Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption can increase your risk of disc herniation.

How do I know when I have a herniated disc?

Just like almost any other injury, a disc tear can be painful as local nerves in the disc wall become irritated and inflamed. Additionally, as herniated discs interfere with the nearby spinal cord and peripheral nervous system, symptoms can be wide-ranging. They include neck and lower back pain, radiating or “shooting pain” in the limbs on one side of the body, muscle weakness and spasms, numbness of the limbs and difficulty walking.

If you have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, and your physician has tried to treat it without success, contact Laser Spine Institute for a complimentary initial consultation. Our trained professionals can review your MRI or CT scan and possibly suggest an outpatient treatment that may alleviate your symptoms.

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