Spinal Disc Problems



Eighty percent of people experience back pain, and at any one point in time, approximately 20% of the population has back pain. For many decades, doctors and scientists believed that most back pain was caused by "slipped" or "torn" discs. We now know this not to be true. Disc problems constitute only a small portion of the causes of back pain and rarely require surgery for pain relief.

What are spinal discs?
Spinal discs are a critically important part of your spinal column. Along with the vertebrae, also called the spinal bones, they perform many functions. The discs provide shock absorption, protecting the spinal cord and ensuring flexibility of the spine. They also perform other functions.

The spinal discs are essentially ligaments (structures connecting bones) that attach to the top and bottom of each vertebra. They are thick, ligament-like outer rings, also known as annuli fibrosis. Because they are arranged in an alternating pattern with the vertebrae, annuli fibrosis allow flexibility while preventing the vertebrae from moving too much and causing injury.

Inside a single annulus fibrosis is a jelly-like substance called the nucleus pulposis. It contains some proteins, but is primarily made up of water. The nucleus provides more shock absorption than does the annulus, and it also acts as a fulcrum to direct the type of movement through which each vertebra travels.

What are the most common disc problems?
  • A disc "bulge" results from slight tears in the outermost fibers of an annulus fibrosis. These small tears can be painful for a short time.


  • A disc protrusion/extrusion, also called "herniation," is a more significant injury. It results from a complete or significant tear of the fibers of an annulus-when some of the nucleus leaks through. A herniation can also be painful and may even cause nerve compression. In the most severe cases, the spinal cord can become compressed.

  • The most common disc problem suffered by adults is degenerative disc disease. This occurs when the nucleus loses water and small tears develop in it. The body then forms osteophytes (bone spurs), along the edges of the vertebra and the disc space narrows. We used to believe that this was a function of "wear and tear" as we aged. The most recent evidence shows that, most often, there is a hereditary link to the development of degenerative disc disease. Degenerative disc disease can also be caused by trauma/injury.

What are the common signs and symptoms of disc problems?

Common signs of disc problems include, but are not limited to:
  • Back or neck pain
  • Leg or arm pain
  • Stiffness
  • Tenderness of the spine and spinal muscles


How are disc problems diagnosed? Disc problems are most often diagnosed with the use of a thorough history and physical examination, including examination of your nervous and musculoskeletal systems. Your doctor will most likely move your back and arms and legs into various positions while applying pressure to your joints. Plain film x-rays are helpful in only some forms of disc problems. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has

 



 
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