Discs are spongy structures located between each pair of spine bones (vertebrae) whose function is to provide cushioning against jolts and impacts and to promote flexibility and movement in the spine. Each disc is composed of a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus (literally “fibrous ring”) and a softer gel-like interior called the nucleus pulposus. It’s this central portion that provides cushioning against impacts and injuries from falls and other accidents, and even from the day-to-day jolts from walking and normal activities.
Normally, discs remain between the vertebrae. But sometimes, a disc can slip out of place and an edge or portion of the disc can extend beyond the edges of the bones, creating a bulge or herniation that can press on surrounding soft tissue and nerves, causing pain and other symptoms. In some cases, the movements of the spine can cause the disc to rupture or break open and a small amount of the interior gel-like substance will leak out, increasing irritation.
Discs often become herniated as the result of an injury like a fall or car accident that causes strain or compression in the spine, forcing the discs out of their normal positions. Disc herniation also occurs more commonly with age. As we get older, the discs lose some of their fluid content, becoming stiffer and thinner so they’re more likely to slip out of place. Wear and tear also take their toll. Other risk factors for developing herniated discs include:
Mildly herniated discs may be treated with medications to relieve pain and inflammation, combined with hot and cold therapy, physical therapy, stretching exercises and additional support to the back while it heals. Cortisone injections in the area near the disc can also help by relieving swelling and inflammation. People who have recurrent or chronic disc herniation may require surgery to stabilize that portion of the spine or to remove portions of the disc or the entire disc, sometimes replacing it with an artificial disc replacement.