A herniated disc is typically the result of wear and tear or an injury. Read on for a helpful overview of how a disc herniates:
Watch: Herniated Disc Video
The structure of a disc
Each of your spinal discs sit between 2 vertebrae. A spinal disc is comprised of the following:
- The nucleus pulposus, a softer, gel-like substance in the center of the disc.
- The annulus fibrosus, which refers to the outer layers of the disc.
See Spinal Discs
Your spinal discs serve at least 2 functions. First, they act as a shock absorber between the vertebrae in your spine. Second, they help to facilitate movement in your spine.
But spinal discs can quickly turn from a help to a nuisance as the result of a herniation.
Weakened discs can lead to herniations
Due to the natural aging process and general wear and tear, your discs lose a portion of the fluid that makes them both pliable and spongy.
In turn, your discs may become both flatter and harder. This is a process known as disc degeneration, and it may begin as soon as early adulthood. Fortunately, many people will not experience any symptoms as a result of disc degeneration.
However, in certain cases the annulus fibrosus portion of one of your spinal discs may crack or tear as a result of pressure. In turn, the inner portion (known as the the nucleus pulposus) may leak out (or herniate). This herniation can, though not always, lead to painful symptoms.
You may experience a herniated disc in your neck, upper back, or lower back. But a disc is most likely to herniate in your lower back (over 90 percent of herniations occur in this area), as this is where the most pressure is applied to your discs.
Herniated disc symptoms
In the case of a lumbar herniated disc (lower back), you may experience sciatica symptoms if the inner fluid of your disc, or a disc fragment, aggravates a nearby nerve root.
For a cervical (neck) herniated disc, you may feel weakness, pain, numbness, or tingling in your shoulder, fingers, or arm.
Finally, with a thoracic herniated disc (upper back), you may feel pain in your upper back or chest area. But fortunately these types of herniations are rare.
It is important to note that everyone experiences symptoms from a herniated disc differently. For example, one person may feel no pain from a lumbar herniated disc; while another can find a similar injury debilitating.
Initial treatment options
The main goal when it comes to treatment is to relieve your herniated disc symptoms. However, it is important to have your injury properly diagnosed before beginning most treatments. This is because the wrong kinds of treatment may aggravate your condition.
Your doctor will likely have you begin with conservative treatment options, which may include: