The way we normally talk about back pain causes can be misleading. One guy “throws his back out,” while another has a “slipped disc.” What does all that even mean?
When you have a disc injury, the intervertebral disc doesn’t actually “slip” out from in between your vertebrae. There are 3 main types of disc problems and, while each designates a different specific dysfunction, they all have similar symptoms and treatments. In order to understand disc injuries, let’s first take a look at the anatomy of a spinal disc.
Anatomy of a Disc
Spinal discs are kind of like jelly doughnuts. They have a fluid-filled center, called the nucleus pulposas, and a tough exterior called the annulus fibrosus. This construction allows them to act as shock absorbers between each pair of vertebrae.
A bunch of nerves run through the spine, behind the discs, that carry motor and sensory information back and forth between the brain and body parts. When a disc’s shape or thickness changes, it can interfere with nerves inside the spine. This is one of the main causes of pain associated with disc injury.
A disc is said to be bulging when a portion of the annulus fibrosus weakens, allowing the nucleus pulposus to be squished up against the weak side. The disc literally bulges out from between the vertebrae. If the bulge happens in the posterior portion of the spine, it may press on nerves. Nerve impingement is characterized by sharp pain, weakness, numbness and tingling that travels along the nerve pathway.
A number of things can cause the disc’s wall to weaken. Repetitive motions that puts more stress on one part of the disc than the rest can cause it over time. An injury from a sudden movement, such as slipping while carrying weight, can also strain the disc.
Herniation is what happens when the weakened section of a disc’s wall cracks and the fluids in the center begin to ooze out. This could occur after years of bulging or from a sudden injury. The fluids inside the disc contain inflammatory chemicals that irritate nerves when they make contact with them. This is one of the most commonly diagnosed causes of lower back pain (in most cases, no cause is identified).
Over the years, the structures of our bodies begin to wear down. Part of this is from years of use, and part it is because we’re not immortal and our bodies know it. We stop producing proteins and other substances designed to rebuild degenerated areas. Discs can become dehydrated, either from simple time, overuse, smoking or poor nutrition, thus withering and leaving vertebrae without enough cushion between them. As you age, vertebral fracturing can result.
Treating disc problems generally involves exercise and smoking cessation. Since disc injuries usually occur in the lower back, exercises tend to emphasize the core muscle group – including muscles in the stomach, back, hips and buttocks. It’s best to work with a physical therapist when learning how to exercise with a disc injury; he or she can guide you toward the best exercises for the specific location of your injury.
Some people who don’t benefit significantly from exercise therapy choose to try out inversion therapy. You can purchase a table for your home for around $100. Inversion tables put you on an incline with your head closer to the ground than your feet; this reverses gravity’s pull on your spine and, theoretically, allows discs to reabsorb fluids and return to normal shape.
Surgery is not often needed for disc problems, although it may be necessary in cases of debilitating nerve pain or vertebral friction. Spinal fusion surgery entails the removal of the disc materials and fusing of the vertebral segments. This type of surgery can cause surrounding discs to wear faster. Another option is artificial disc replacement. Finally, the least invasive procedure is the microdiscectomy, in which a small portion of a bulging or herniated disc is removed to eliminate nerve impingement.
Consider making healthy dietary changes that may encourage discs to heal. To learn about types of food that are good for your discs, see http://backpainsolutionsonline.com/back-pain-therapy/low-back-pain-treatment/foods-that-help-heal-degenerated-discs.
Dehydrated, bulging and herniated disc treatment will always require lifestyle changes and rarely require surgery. Learning what’s happening in your body will give you a better understanding of how to fix it.