Most of the 23 discs that make up the human spine are in the middle back (thoracic spine) area. However, it’s the spongy supportive structures in the neck and lower back that often contribute to disc-related pain because spinal discs in these areas are more flexible and less protected than mid-spine discs. If you experience issues with any of your intervertebral discs, you may reach a point where your daily movements and activities are affected. To give you a better understanding of what could be causing your discomfort, let’s take a moment to explore the ABCs of disc pain.
A: Annular Tears
The tough exterior layer of a spinal disc is designed to be durable. Even so, this part of a disc sometimes becomes damaged. When this happens, it’s called an annular tear, which refers to the strong ligament fibers that make up the outer layer of discs (annulus fibrosus). Minor tears of this nature may cause few or no symptoms. More extensive tears may produce discomfort that worsens when sitting for long periods or making certain movements. Possible causes of annular tears include:
• Age-related breakdown of discs (degenerative disc disease)
• Damage caused by repetitive movements or sitting for long periods
• Car accidents, sports-related injuries, or damage from high-impact activities other than sports, such as intense exercise
B: Bulging Discs
The natural aging process is also a common reason discs “bulge,” referring to an instance when the larger portion of a spinal disc spreads beyond its normal boundaries. Disc shape can change due to a natural loss of hydration, which means spinal discs become less “spongy” over time. Pain is usually only experienced if the larger-than-normal disc is irritating nearby nerves. Symptoms associated with bulging discs may include:
• Radiating pain extending from the lower back into the buttocks, legs, or feet
• Pain that extends from the neck to the shoulders, arms, or fingers
• Discomfort that’s a mix of pain, numbness, tingling sensations, and general weakness
Sometimes the soft inner disc material pushes through the harder outside part of a spinal disc. When this happens, it’s known as a herniated disc. Symptoms are similar to what may be experienced with a bulging disc. Consulting with a Los Angeles spine surgeon can help you determine the cause of your symptoms and how best to treat them.
C: Collapsed Discs
In some instances, the outside layer of a disc deteriorates so much the disc loses its shape. If a disc becomes excessively thin or weak due to age-related degeneration, it may no longer be able to support the spine. The result is often a loss of height in the affected area, which can also contribute to pinched nerves. Symptoms related to collapsed discs may include:
• Back or neck pain or radiating pain in nearby extremities
• Tingling or numbness felt along the path of the affected nerve
• Muscle weakness or spasms
• Loss of function (if nerve damage is severe)
Some people have discs that are damaged but only causing minimal or mild discomfort. If this is the case, medication, activity modification, and physical therapy may be effective. When symptoms are severe, don’t go away with conservative (non-surgical) treatments, or result in pain extending to legs, arms, or shoulders, surgery may be necessary. Options include removing part of the damaged disc (microdiscectomy), removing the entire disc and limiting motion in the affected area (spinal fusion), and replacing the disc with an artificial one (artificial disc replacement).
If you have pain you think may be resulting from disc issues, you don’t have to suffer needlessly. The spinal health experts at The Spine Institute know all about how to ease pain caused by damaged or weakened discs. We specialize in every aspect of spinal health, from preventive care to back fusion alternatives. Los Angeles residents should call us today at 310-828-7757 for more information or to schedule a consultation.