Almost everyone knows about the discs that separate the vertebrae in your spine. When the subject of discs comes up, it is usually because something has gone awry with one of them. These rubbery cushions separate the individual bones in your spinal column, absorbing the normal forces our spine is subjected to on a daily basis. Discs can become injured a result of an acute issue or, more commonly, wear down gradually over time.
What are the Intervertebral Discs?
When learning about the discs, most people are taught to think of them like a jelly donut. Discs have an inner nucleus of soft “jelly” surrounded by outer, fibrous rings that contain and protect it. Here’s a bit more information about the components of the disc:
1. Nucleus Pulposis
The nucleus pulposis makes up the center portion of the disc, or the “jelly.” The nucleus of the disc is made primarily of water along with other substances that serve to transmit weight and stress from vertebra to vertebra.
2. Annulus Fibrosis
The annulus fibrosis can be thought of like the rings of a tree. Layers of sturdy collagen fibers surround and encase the gel-like nucleus of the disc. The primary function of the annulus is to increase the stability of the spine during rotational movement and to resist compressive loads on the spine.
The top and bottom surfaces of the discs are called the endplates. These distinct parts of the vertebrae blend with the fibers of the disc and help to keep the disc in its proper place.
Degrees of Disc Injury
Anyone who has experienced damage or injury to one of their spinal discs will tell you that it is incredibly painful, and every little movement makes it feel worse. There is a range of problems that can occur when the discs dehydrate, wear thin, and start to cause pain and loss of function. The normal elasticity and flexibility of the disc can decrease with age due to wear and tear, previous back injury, or spinal misalignment left uncorrected for long enough. The loss of normal movement of these vertebral segments prevents the disc from receiving the nutrition and hydration needed to stay healthy. This can result in various degrees of damage to the disc:
A disc bulge happens when the layers of the annulus fibrosis weaken and allow the inner nucleus material to push out towards the edges of the disc. As a result, the disc becomes distorted from its regular shape, pushing on surrounding nerves and tissues. Depending on where along the circumference of the disc the bulge occurs, it can cause muscle spasm, loss of normal range of movement, and extreme pain that can radiate down the arm or leg depending on the location.
A disc herniation is the progression of a bulging disc where the nucleus of the disc pushes all the way out from the outermost layer of the annulus. The presence of the nucleus material where it doesn’t belong causes a major inflammatory process as well as the possibility of putting pressure on the spinal cord itself. A disc herniation can be excruciatingly painful. If it occurs in the neck, it can cause numbness, tingling, and weakness in the arms (nerves that branch off the spinal cord in the neck feed the arms). A disc herniation in the low back, which is by far the most common area to be affected, can cause the same symptoms in the legs.
Can I Reduce My Risk of Back Pain due to Disc Herniation?
Nobody is entirely immune from injuring their back and experiencing pain and discomfort as a result. Everyday things like picking up your baby or playing a round of golf on the weekend can be a catalyst for a disc injury given the right conditions. While insulating yourself completely is not realistic, there are lifestyle choices that can help reduce your chances of hurting your back. Here are the top 3 things you can do:
1. Minimize occupational risks
Job-related risks that can contribute to disc injury and back pain fall on both ends of the spectrum. People with physically demanding jobs that require bending, lifting, pulling, stooping, etc. must take care to make these movements as carefully and correctly as possible to reduce the chances of injury. On the other hand, those with jobs that require long hours of sitting must also be aware of how their ergonomics can lead to back pain and problems.
2. Shed excess weight
If you need that extra push to shed that last stubborn 10 or 20 pounds, doing so might help to minimize the stress on the discs of your spine. This is especially true for your lower back, where the discs bear the majority of our body weight.
3. Quit smoking
Cigarette smoking is a significant factor in degenerative disc disease, especially in younger people. Nicotine can prevent the discs from getting necessary nutrients, and carbon monoxide can impair your discs’ ability to absorb nutrients from the blood. As discs become more malnourished, they are at a higher risk of damage and injury.
Adjust the Neck to Protect Your Back
When it comes to good spinal health, a top-down approach makes a lot of sense. Your spine performs many functions, but some of the most vital jobs it does are to balance the head and keep it upright and to protect the brainstem and spinal cord. The bones positioned at the upper neck are different than all of the rest. The atlas (C1) and axis (C2) form the upper cervical spine and are the most freely movable ones of the whole spine.
When these misalign, the rest of the spine compensates in order to keep the head in an upright and neutral position. You might notice that your head is a bit tilted, one shoulder may be higher than the other, and your hips are imbalanced from left to right. These abnormal forces can eventually lead to the wear and tear on discs that cause them to bulge or herniate.
The upper cervical chiropractic approach aims not merely to chase around your symptoms of back pain. The goal is to correct the problem at the root so that your body can return to balance naturally. If you are dealing with nagging back pain or if you’ve had disc issues in the past, upper cervical chiropractic care can help reintroduce more strength and stability to your spine. Check out the resources on our website to learn more and to locate a doctor near you.