Herniated discs, or slipped discs, are one of the most common causes of back pain in the United States, affecting about 3 million people every single year.
What is a Herniated Disc?
Before explaining a herniated disc, it's important to first understand what discs are and their purpose in the spine.
Spinal discs, also known as intervertebral cartilage, are essentially cushions that sit between the vertebrae of your spine and absorb all the shock that your back takes throughout the day. In a healthy spine, these discs are full of a gelatinous-like substance known as the nucleus pulposus which give them their ability to flex and compress. Meanwhile, the rigid outer shell of the disc, known as the annulus, ensures that everything remains contained and provides durability.
A great way to picture a healthy spinal disc is to think of jelly donut. The jelly represents the nucleus pulposus and the pastry represents the annulus.
However, as our bodies age and have experienced decades of constant wear and tear, the annulus of the disc naturally begins to weaken. For many people this isn't a problem, however in some cases this degeneration can cause the disc to collapse, crack or rupture, causing the nucleus pulposus to extrude outside of the disc.
A disc can also herniate as a result of a sudden, violent movement — a car accident, for example.
Depending on the location of the the ruptured disc, the fluid can begin to put pressure on the sensitive nerve roots that exit from the spine. This can cause pain directly in the back or in the location connected to the impacted nerve root.
It's important to note that back pain can be a little tricky to self-diagnose. Most pain that occurs in the back is actually the result of strained, pulled or inflamed structures (like muscles or tendons) that support the spine. Pain in these areas can feel like it's emanating from the back when, in reality, it's coming from a different area entirely. One way you can determine the seriousness of your spine pain is to see how conservative treatments like rest, anti-inflammatory medication like ibuprofen, heat therapy and massages help your spine. If you condition improves after a couple of days, it was likely not a symptomatic spinal condition.
In contrast, pain from an acutely herniated disc can cause pain that may not improve with rest and medications. If you're experiencing daily pain from your spine that is not improving with conservative treatment, it's time to consider visiting a spinal specialist.