The Anatomy of a Herniated Disc

A herniated disc – also referred to as a ruptured or a slipped disc – may be what is causing you extreme pain in your lower back.

The backbone or spine consists of a sequence of individual bones known as vertebrae that align next to each other to form your spinal column. Between each vertebra, there are flat, round protecting pads known as intervertebral discs, which function as shock absorbers. Each disc contains a smooth, jelly-like center referred to as the nucleus pulposus, surrounded by a stable, fibrous outer layer known as the annulus.

A herniated disc occurs when vertebrae pressure from above and below the spinal column forces some or all of that jelly-like center, the nucleus pulposus, to come out from a torn or weakened part of the outer layer, or the annulus. The herniated nucleus pulposus can put pressure on the spinal cord or the nerves adjacent to the disc, causing symptoms of pain, weakness or numbness. The pain can also occur next to the area connected by that nerve or around the damaged disc.

herniated disc anatomy
Back pain can be caused by a herniated disc

The nucleus pulposus also aggravates the spinal nerves, producing a form of chemical irritation that can result in spinal nerve inflammation, all brought about by the pressure of the herniated disc.

Classification and Occurrence of the Herniated Disc

Herniated discs most often take place in the lumbar vertebrae which are located on the lower part of the spine. However, some people have slipped discs as well in the thoracic and cervical parts of the spine. A slipped disc in any of these areas is a major cause of neck and back pain and this pain can also spread to the leg (sciatica pain).

Doctors use two common terms to describe a herniated disc. A bulging disc, or protrusion, happens when the disc annulus remains intact, but bulges outwards and can press against the nerves. Alternatively, a true herniated disc or slipped/ruptured disc occurs when the annulus splits or fractures, allowing the jelly-filled center (nucleus pulposus) to press out of the annulus. At times severe herniation occurs causing a free fragment (a piece has ruptured completely in the spinal canal and free from the disc).

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

The symptoms differ greatly depending on their location in the spinal column and how you respond to pain. For instance, you may experience pain that spreads from your lower back region to one or both legs. The pain can occasionally reach your feet leading to a medical condition known as sciatica.

Also, you may experience pain in the form of an electric shock that gets serious if you walk, stand, or sit. Doing activities that involve lifting, bending, twisting, and even sitting may intensify the pain. You will find that lying flat on your back while bending your knees is the best and the most comfortable position since it reduces the downward pressure on the disc.

At times, the pain comes with tingling and numbness sensations on your foot or leg. You may also feel muscle contractions or cramping in your leg or back.

Apart from the pain, you may get weakness in your leg muscles, accompanied by knee or loss of ankle impulse. For severe cases, you may suffer from foot flops while walking or lose your bladder or bowel control. In all these symptoms, you should consider medical support immediately to avoid dangerous back pain conditions.

woman holding rail in pain from herniated disc

What Causes Herniated Discs and Who is at Risk?

Certain physical activities may put you at risk for a herniated disc.

For instance, a disc can split while you are turning or twisting to lift a heavy object. Heavy objects can immensely strain the lower back, and cause a slipped disc. If your job requires physical activities that involve a lot of lifting, you have a high risk of getting a slipped disc.

Herniated discs mainly affect people in their 30s and 40s, although older people are at a higher risk, especially if they perform physical activities. Also, as one ages, there is general deterioration on the spine. This puts the elderly at a higher chance of developing herniated discs as well. They also lose some of their protective nucleus content as they advance in years causing discs to slide or detach more easily.

Additionally, a slipped disc affects more men than women, and also tends to occur if the spine encounters injury due to recurring activities. You are also more at risk of a slipped disc if you are overweight because your discs need to support the extra weight. Not surprisingly, weak muscles and an inactive lifestyle contribute to the development of a herniated disc.

What to Do Next

Consult your doctor if you have significant neck or back pain that limits your daily activities. Also, if you have any back pain that persists for more than a few days, or causes loss of bowel or bladder control, weakness or numbness, fever, chest or abdominal pain then visit your doctor. Your doctor may recommend an urgent checkup or may advise you to attend the emergency department for a quick diagnosis.

If you have any injury that may suggest severe back or neck problems, such as a height fall, or direct knock to the spine, a hospital emergency department should examine you. The main reason is to ensure the medical team can immobilize and protect the spine against further injury. If you have all these symptoms, consider visiting a Midsouth Pain Treatment Center near your place for a professional checkup.

Find out how you can get relief from symptoms of a herniated disc and treatment for lower back pain. For more information contact us now at the MidSouth Pain Treatment Center or give us a call at (866) 707-1942. We are your “pain doctor near me.”