The disc is a part of the spine that's been getting a lot of attention in recent years. We hear the terms 'slipped disc', 'ruptured disc', herniated disc', 'prolapsed disc' but what do they really mean?
What is the intervertebral disc?
The disc is a structure located between the spinal bones (vertebrae). Because it's found between the vertebrae it's officially called the intervertebral (inter-between, vertebral-the vertebrae) disc.
The disc is made up of two parts: a tough fibrous outer ring (called the annular fibrosis) and the gel-like center (the nucleas pulposis).
The intervertebral disc performs many functions. It separates the vertebrae and acts like a shock absorber between the bones. It helps give the spine its curves and also joins the vertebrae together. The 23 discs in our spine contribute to almost 25% of the length of the spinal column. In fact, in the morning we are about a quarter inch to a half an inch taller than the night before because the discs lose fluid after a day of standing and thin out a little.
The Disc and Spinal Pain
Today researchers are in general agreement that disc lesions are the single most common cause of lower back pain. What is the disc lesion?
Disc Protrusion and Prolapse
Surprisingly, the disc may start showing signs of wear and tear as early as age 15. Over the years the disc loses a little fluid and small cracks (lesions) begin to form in the outer walls. The nucleus pulposus begins to bulge and push the annular fibrosis out of shape. This is called a protrusion. If the part bulges out too much it may actually separate from the rest of the disc and become a disc prolapse. This is also call a herniation or rupture of the disc.
If the prolapse disc goes into the spinal cord or puts extreme pressure on the nerves it may cause severe pain that could make sitting, standing, walking, lifting, urinating, defecating, sneezing, coughing and moving nearly impossible. In extreme cases numbness of the leg or foot or a loss of muscular control may occur.
The term 'slipped disc' is really a misnomer since the disc cannot slip-it is knitted into the vertebrae from both above and below. What can and sometimes do slip are the vertebrae, which if they do 'slip' our of position may put pressure upon the disc and contribute to its damage. Most causes of 'slipped discs' would probably be more accurately called 'slipped vertebrae' or disc prolapse.
Disc degeneration often damages lumbar and sacral nerves of the lower spine and because of this various conditions in the pelvic area may occur. Among these are endometriosis, infections (bladder, vaginal, kidney), prostate problems, miscarriage, sterility, sexual impotence, problems of urinary retention, cystitis, menstrual cramps and constipation. It is not uncommon for an individual who has a chronic back problem to suffer from one or more of the above problems as well.