The spinal discs are sometimes referred to as the shock absorbers of our spine. They cushion the stress placed on our spine by providing a gap between the vertebrae. The integrity of these discs declines over time, causing severe pain and spinal issues known as degenerative disc disease. The pain from degenerative disc disease can be debilitating and interfere with daily life.

What is a spinal disc made of?

The disc consists of two parts:

detailed human spine model section

Nucleus

The center, referred to as the nucleus pulposis, is comprised of a gelatinous matrix similar to jelly.

Matrix

The matrix is made of mostly water. The outer covering that keeps the nucleus intact is called the annulus fibrosis, which is made of crisscrossing fibers.

The disc itself consists of about 88% water, but as we age, the disc begins to lose water which flattens and thins the disc. This is known as disc degeneration.

What causes degenerative disc disease?

Disc degeneration occurs more rapidly after disc injury such as an annular tear. As the disc thins, more stress is placed on the joints behind the disc. More severely, the narrowing reduces the size of the opening where the exiting nerve roots extend from the spinal canal.

The reduction in the size of the “nerve hole” creates irritation and causes an inflammatory process. The result is a myriad of effects that include inflammation of the nerve, inflammation of the surrounding tissue, muscle spasms, and pain.

The most common mechanism of injury to a disc is a compression of the disc coupled with a shearing motion or twisting. When a disc is injured from overstress, like lifting a heavy object, the fibers of the annulus are torn, which allow the nucleus to ooze from its center. This creates a bulging which can pinch the exiting spinal nerve or even the dural sac, also called the cauda equina.

What are the symptoms of disc degeneration?

Depending on the severity of the herniation or bulging, a patient may experience a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Localized back pain
  • Leg pain or burning
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscular weakness

Some serious EMERGENT conditions may require immediate medical care such as Cauda Equina Syndrome.
Symptoms include loss of bowel or bladder control and numbness around the anal region. Other serious neurological symptoms include loss of balance, paralysis or foot drop.

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