To understand why disc injuries occur, you need to understand more about a spinal disc. Spinal discs are flat and round and attach above and below the vertebrae of the spine. Discs are designed to provide shock absorption for the spinal column. Because of the stresses in daily life and changes due to aging, discs tend to get injured after a time.
Causes of Disc Injuries or Degeneration
Disc injuries, in most cases, are brought on by the aging process. Therefore, any causes related to degenerative disc disease are associated with getting older. While this condition mainly concerns the disc, it also affects other areas of the spine. The causes for degeneration usually stem from the following:
Inflammatory proteins in the interior disc space may begin to leak as the disc degenerates. In turn the disc swells in the area around the spine. The inflammation can produce muscle spasms, muscle tension and tenderness in the neck or back. If a nerve root become inflamed, the patient may experience cervical radiculopathy, or pain and numbness between the shoulder and arm. Otherwise, pain may be felt in the hips or legs – a condition known as lumbar radiculopathy.
2. Abnormal Micro-motion Stability
When the cushioning of a disc declines, small and unnatural movements may occur between the vertebrae. These micro-motions may cause irritation or tension around the nerve roots, muscles, or joints. These movements cause a worsening of the tension as the spine becomes gradually more unstable. In turn, the patient feels intense pain.
What Occurs When a Disc Degenerates?
Two triggers cause a disc to degenerate. These triggers are described below:
- Disc Space Collapse – As a disc degenerates, the space next to the disc collapses as well, all which places extra strain on the muscles that support the spine. The space is also shortened between the vertebrae, leading to problems with instability.
- Cartilaginous Endplate Erosion – Each vertebral segment of the spine features a joint that is attached to cartilage. Between each disc and vertebral body is cartilage called an endplate. When the endplate erodes, nutritional absorption is compromised. In turn, disc degeneration speeds up, which leads to a disc collapse.
Causes of Herniated or Slipped Discs
Disc injuries are most often associated with a herniated or slipped disc. Also known as a ruptured disc, this problem is brought on by the following:
- Aging (wear-and-tear).
- Using the muscles of the back instead of the legs or thighs to lift heavy objects.
- Twisting and turning can also lead to a problem while lifting.
Your chance of getting a herniated disc increase if you are overweight, have a predisposition to the condition because of genetics or work in a job where pulling, pushing, and lifting are required.
Symptoms Related to Disc Injuries or Degeneration
A disc can slip or degenerate anywhere between the neck and lower back. However, the lower back often is the usual site for a slipped disc. Symptoms may include the following:
- Pain or numbness on one side of the body
- Pain that extends to the legs are arms
- Pain that worsens with certain motions or at night
- Pain that worsens after sitting or standing for a while
- Pain that is experienced when walking a short distance
- Muscle weakness
- Aching, burning, or tingling sensations at the affected site
Treating Disc Injuries or Disc Degeneration
To alleviate the pain of a slipped disc or a disc that is affected by wear-and-tear, doctors often recommend the following:
- Over-the-counter pain medications or prescription medicines.
- Physical therapy – stretching and exercise help alleviate the pain.
- Muscle relaxers to lessen muscle spasms.
Other treatments include the following:
1. Heat Treatments – Heat treatments are advised to warm the area and loosen the muscles so they can relax.
2. Regular Massage – Frequently, a worn or ruptured disc affects the surrounding muscles. Regular massage treatments support better health as they relax the muscles and aid in relieving stress and tension. Heat also calms muscle spasms and supports nerve health.
3. Exercises that Support Flexibility and Strength – Exercises can be coordinated with regular physical therapy treatments and chiropractic care. Many of the exercises involve stretching, which leads to better stability and increased strength.
4. Injections of Anti-inflammatory Steroids in the Disc – Injections sometimes offer short-term pain relief for ruptured discs.
When Surgery May Be Advised
If the pain of a slipped disc does not subside after six weeks or the herniation affects muscle function, the disc may be replaced. This type of procedure in known as a microdiscectomy. If the injury is severe, the doctor may remove the disc and fuse the vertebrae – a process known as spinal fusion. He may also elect to remove the disc and replace it with an artificial disc for added stability.
A Final Note
Most common disc conditions resolve themselves without resorting to surgery. Usually, exercise, physical therapy, and chiropractic care can take care of any complaints of this kind.
If you are suffering from a painful spinal disc situation, contact one of our specialists at Oahu Spine & Rehab.