Intervertebral disc overview

An intervertebral disc is a layer of cartilaginous material that acts as a shock absorber between each vertebra. Along with the facet joints, these discs enable basic spinal movement like bending, flexing and twisting.

There are two parts that make up an intervertebral disc: the nucleus pulposus, or inner layer, and the annulus fibrosis, or outer layer. The nucleus pulposus is gel-like fluid that acts as a shock absorber. The annulus fibrosus surrounds the nucleus pulposus and is made of strong, fibrous cartilage that gives the disc structure and enables even weight distribution of neighboring vertebrae.

Intervertebral disc issues

Intervertebral discs can be affected by a number of issues, but biggest one is probably the natural aging process. As we age, the discs dry out and lose elasticity, potentially leading to a condition called degenerative disc disease. These weakened discs become more vulnerable to everyday wear and tear or traumatic injury, and can lead to related conditions like bulging and herniated discs.

A bulging disc occurs when the disc weakens or degenerates and protrudes into the spinal canal. A herniated disc is when the outer layer ruptures, causing the inner material to get pushed into the spinal column. Damaged intervertebral discs can also increase the likelihood of developing spinal arthritis and bone spurs due to the extra pressure it puts on the vertebrae.

Symptoms and treatment

These conditions are not always painful by themselves, but can cause symptoms if displaced spinal anatomy compresses a nerve. The resulting symptoms include:

  • Local back stiffness and pain
  • Traveling or shooting pain along the length of the nerve
  • Muscle weakness
  • Tingling and numbness in the extremities

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may have intervertebral disc damage. Your physician can perform a physical examination or order tests such as an X-ray, CT scan or MRI to diagnose the underlying cause. After that, he or she can prescribe a treatment plan, which will likely begin conservatively with options like exercise, periods of rest, over-the-counter medicine and physical therapy.

Surgery will usually become an option when weeks or months of treatment do not bring relief. Traditional open back surgery to treat intervertebral disc issues involves a fairly large incision that requires overnight hospitalization and a long recovery period.

At Laser Spine Institute, our minimally invasive spine surgery is an alternative to a traditional open back procedure because our surgeons can access the spine by using a shorter, muscle-sparing incision. This means an outpatient procedure that results in a dramatically shorter recovery period^ for our patients.

To find out if you may be a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery, contact Laser Spine Institute today for your no-cost MRI review.*