There are 23 discs in the spinal column. The discs are the rubbery structures located between each vertebrae in the spine. They provide cushioning for the spine and separate the vertebrae so that nerves can exit out. Injured discs are common as people age. When a disc is injured, it often causes pain and inflammation to the surrounding nerves.
Anatomy of a Disc
A disc is comprised of two parts. The annulus fibrosis is the tire-like outer band that surrounds the center nucleus of the disc. This annulus fibrosis is made up of strong, densely packed collagen fibrils that resist stress. The inner part of the disc is called the nucleus pulposis. It’s made of a gel-like substance that acts as a shock absorber for the spine during movement. The discs keep the vertebrae from touching each other as we move.
A herniation occurs when pressure on the disc causes a tear or crack in the annulus fibrosis, allowing part of the nucleus pulposis to leak out. The gel in the nucleus releases a chemical that irritates surrounding nerves. Sometimes a weak spot on the disc will cause it to bulge out. Symptoms of a herniated disc include dull or sharp pain that may radiate down an arm or leg, or weakness, tingling, or numbness in the extremity affected by the irritated nerve. There may also be muscle spasms or cramping. Common sites of disc herniation are the neck and low back.
Causes of Herniation
- Trauma – Sudden stress from an accident or injury
- Aging – Discs dry out and lose resiliency and strength
- Poor posture – Incorrect or repetitive lifting or twisting
- Lifestyle choices – Lack of exercise; obesity
Fortunately, most disc herniations can heal without surgery. Non-operative treatments include medications to relieve pain and inflammation. Heat and cold therapy is helpful, especially during the first few days. Physical therapy exercises such as gentle stretching and massage can decrease pain, increase flexibility, and build strength to help the body heal. Physical therapy also teaches the patient safer ways to perform specific tasks, such as lifting, so that they are less likely to reinjure themselves.
When conservative treatments for a herniated disc have not worked, surgery is an option. The surgeon can remove all or part of the damaged disc using minimally invasive surgical techniques.
Atlanta Brain and Spine Care
Atlanta Brain and Spine Care is metro Atlanta’s leading neurosurgical practice. Our neurosurgeons offer patients access to some of the world’s most advanced treatments and procedures in five convenient metro locations. Contact our office to schedule a consultation with a spine specialist.