Within each joint segment of the spine are round, flat structures we call discs. These “shock absorbers” are attached to the vertebrae on each side, and serve an important role as facilitators of flexibility within the spinal column. The cushiony center of each disc is protected by a thick outer shell made of collagen. Containing water and protein at their core, discs inhibit friction between the vertebrae of the spine.
Discs allow for pivoting and other range of motion throughout the entire length of the spine. This structure is slightly pliable so that the force of movement is better absorbed through the spinal column. With age and injury as factors, one or more spinal discs may degrade. Should this occur, pain and limited range of motion may progressively worsen until appropriate treatment is conducted.
Disc problems occur in the spine itself, but the symptoms of thinning, degeneration, or other breakdown are felt in various other parts of the body. For example, a worn down cervical disc in the neck may lead to chronic head and neck pain, or symptoms in the arm or hand.
Types of Disc Problems
The discs of the spine may be affected by a number of irritants. Sometimes, pain originates from an obvious injury, such as an auto accident. In other instances, pain may occur gradually over time as a disc becomes thin and brittle.
A disc in the neck or back may begin to thin out due to degenerative disc disease. Water and fluid is contained within the center of each disc, providing it with the height and width necessary to prevent nerve compression. Disc thinning is the result of a decrease in the water content of the affected nucleus. The degradation of water within the center of the disc also leads to drying of the outer structure, causing the loss of elasticity that supports natural shock absorption. The more pressure the disc sustains with movements, the thinner it may become. The thinner a disc becomes, the more unstable that segment of the spine will be.
Interestingly, a thinning disc may not cause symptoms initially. Over time, and depending on the area of the spine affected, symptoms may develop. These include:
- Radiating pain along a nerve path, such as sciatica in a lower extremity.
- Localized pain in the neck or back.
- Numbness or tingling along a nerve path.
- Muscle weakness.
A large majority of adults over the age of 50 are affected by degenerative disc disease. That is because this condition of deterioration directly relates to age, lifestyle, and genetic factors. The degeneration of a disc begins at its core, in the cushiony nucleus. When the cartilage that supports the disc breaks down, the inner gel-like material slowly escapes, heightening the effects of normal wear and tear.
Bulging discs are not uncommon. This problem occurs as the weakened disc stretches along its outer rim. The protrusion of a disc in between its relevant set of vertebrae often does not cause symptomology. When we do see symptoms of a protrusion is when the disc itself has moved into a position to place pressure on the adjacent nerve root. Most bulging discs occur in the lumbar spine, or lower back.
A disc can herniate if proper treatment is not received during the stage of a protrusion. The decline of functional cartilage around the outer rim of the disc instigates the seepage of protein from the inner chamber. These proteins are inflammatory to the nerve roots and the spinal cord. When this material escapes through a fissure in the outer shell of the disc, pain and other symptoms may occur.
The clinical team at Advanced Pain Management & Rehabilitation has the experience to diagnose and treat disc problems using innovative protocols. We also have an in-depth understanding of the effects of chronic back pain, which encourages us to develop treatment plans that get results as quickly as possible.
Discover if a disc problem is behind your back pain, and what you can do about it – with our help. Contact us to visit one of our conveniently located offices in New Jersey today.