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What’s the point of a disc?

bulging discs

By Kieran Loving, ATC

Between each vertebral body is a cushion called an intervertebral disc. Each disc absorbs the stress and shock the body incurs during movement and prevents the vertebrae from grinding against one another. The intervertebral discs are the largest structures in the body without a blood supply.  So they are the ‘sneakers’ for your back. They absorb each and every step, jump or load that you place through your spine.

As we age, these discs start to lose their fluid and the space between each vertebral body or bone starts to decrease. This can cause pain, stiffness and even neurological symptoms such as burning, tingling and numbness. The muscles around the back to have to work harder to keep everything steady. Our spine is a very long piece of equipment so these symptoms can occur anywhere along the length of the spine.

There are many things that can go wrong with a disc in your spine. You may have heard the terms degenerated, bulging, herniated, ruptured, slipped and many more. These are basically all describing the same thing just a slightly different progression in each case.

A disc that is irritated or has some abnormal pressure on it may be termed a “slipped disc”. What this means is that the surrounding muscles have not done a good job supporting the spine, maintaining proper alignment of your spine and as a result the increased pressure on the disc or discs from the surrounding muscles has allowed the disc to start to loose its shape and or potentially move slightly to one side.

This loss of shape or slight movement to the side then starts the process of pinching on something and the pain cycle begins. This may also include a loss of movement or difficulty with things during the day if the bones start to rub against each other as well.

If this problem persists and the pressure remains on the disc the problem can progress to a bulging disc. This means that the pressure on the disc has stayed for to long or has continued to increase and now the disc is actually sticking out to the side. The walls of the disc are beginning to weaken and things are really getting much more serious now. Pain will get worse and you may start to develop symptoms down into other parts like into your arm or your leg.

The next progression would be a herniated or a ruptured disc. The pressure on the disc continued and actually due to the pain the surrounding muscles got so tight that it was like putting the disc into a vice. The rings in the wall of the disc can’t hold up to the pressure anymore and now a hole forms in the outside of the disc and the fluid starts to leak out. It can seep out, a herniated disc, or it can just blast though the wall, a rupture. Either way be assured your symptoms will get worse and will spread into new places as well.

A degenerative disc is what is most commonly going on in people spines. This is simply where the wall of the disc is breaking down slowly over time as the result of minor injuries, poor posture, lack of muscle strength around the spine, tight muscles, stress, etc. This is all increasing the pressure on the disc and the rings in the disc are breaking down. The disc looses its shape slowly, starts to put pressure on things and the problem slowly progresses.  

Risk factors for disc problems include obesity, advancing age, pregnancy, a lack of exercise and incorrect lifting techniques. The good news is that physical therapy is a very successful treatment method for disc problems. A timely and thorough evaluation by one of the physical therapists at Loudoun Sports Therapy Center can save you time and money by decreasing your risk of re-injury, chronic symptoms and unnecessary surgery. Call our office TODAY at 703-450-4300 and get your back problem handled. 

CLICK HERE for a short video about other common causes of back problems. 


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