Back Pain & Disc Problems

Invertebral discs are commonly called discs for short. They are the spongy cushions that separate the vertebrae or the spine. They function as shock absorbers, stabilizers and pivotors to allow movement.


Discs are composed of an elastic outer shell called the annulus fibrosis and the nucleus pulposis or the jelly-like contents. 


 Discs can handle quite a lot of pressure without damage, but certain types of pressure can damage the shell and push its contents out.

 

Risk factors for disc problems

Some people are more susceptible to disc problems than others. Risk factors include:

  • Obesity

  • Poor muscle tone

  • Lack of regular exercise

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Advancing age

  • Poor posture

  • Incorrect lifting techniques.

 

Often, however, there is no recognisable risk factor present.

Types of disc problems

Common disc-related problems include degenerative disc disease, ruptured (or ‘slipped’) disc and sciatica (nerve pain).

 

Degenerative disc disease

The discs of a young child are plump and moist, but the water content reduces with age until the discs are comparatively thin and hard. As a result of this, friction between the bones is thought to increase, resulting in growths called bone spurs around the discs. In many cases, these age-related changes cause no problems, but some people experience a painful condition called degenerative disc disease. The most common symptom is back pain caused by holding the same position (either sitting or standing) for too long. It’s among the most common causes of chronic back pain in older people.

 

Ruptured disc

The term ‘slipped disc’ suggests that a disc has moved out of position, but this is not accurate. The discs are held firmly in place by various structures (including ligaments, muscles and the vertebrae themselves).Terms like ‘ruptured’, ‘herniated’ or ‘prolapsed’ describe the situation better, as the real problem is not that the entire disc ‘slips’, but rather that a crack in the tough outer shell of the disc allows the soft jelly-like contents to ooze out. When this material comes into contact with other structures, especially the spinal nerves that run nearby, this can cause pain and alter nerve function.The most common site for a ruptured disc is the lower back, and chronic lower backache can be a symptom. As we get older, the risk of rupturing a disc declines because the discs dry out and the contents are less able to ooze through any cracks.

 

Sciatica

Sciatica is nerve pain from the sciatic nerve that runs from the spine into the buttock and down the back of the leg. A common cause of sciatica is a ruptured disc. The spinal cord normally has room to slide up and down inside the spinal column whenever the body moves. However, a bulging disc can protrude into the spinal column and press against the spinal nerves, hampering its movement and causing pain.

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