Those Built-In Cushions of Your Spine

Our spine and its 24 vertebrae (not including the sacrum and coccyx) couldn’t do much without the cushioning provided by the spinal discs. These soft discs allow the vertebrae to move and the spine to bend without having bone grind on bone. But the spinal discs can also cause serious problems when they herniate and press on adjacent nerve roots as they exit the spinal canal. This causes pain in the area of the back with the nerve compression, and that pain also often radiates down into the area served by the nerve.

At DFW Center for Spinal Disorders, Dr. Tinley treats the pain caused by a herniated disc through discectomies, fusion, and other procedures meant to eliminate the pressure on the affected nerves.

In October’s two blogs, let’s take a closer look at our spinal discs, what they’re all about, and what happens when they herniate.

What is a spinal disc?

Our spine has 23 spinal discs. They are made up of two parts — a tough outer shell called the annulus fibrosis and a soft inner core called the nucleus pulposus. If you want a tasty visual way to think of them, picture your discs as jelly donuts. The outer shell is made of tough, durable, concentric sheets of collagen fibers. The inner core is gel-like, made of a loose network of fibers suspended in a protein gel. The two sections fit together like two concentric cylinders. At birth and through our pre-adult years, our discs are very soft. At this point they’re about 80 percent water. As we age, they begin the process of drying out, making them less and less gel-like as we get older.

What is the job of the spinal discs?

Our spinal discs have three primary functions:

  • They act as shock absorbers between each bony vertebra.
  • They act as tough ligaments, holding the individual vertebrae together to make the spine function as a single element.
  • They are malleable and allow mobility in the spine.

What is a herniated disc?

As we get older and when we place certain types of pressure on our spine and the discs, two things can happen that lead to chronic pain: discs can be squeezed and bulge outward beyond their normal space, or they can develop a crack in the outer shell allowing the inner gel to push outward. This is a description of a bulging disc and a herniated disc.

In both cases, the disc material can then begin to push on an adjacent nerve root exiting the spine or it can impact the spinal cord within the spinal column.

Discs tend to have a prime time for herniation, typically in people aged 30-50 years old. This is more prevalent in men versus women by a ratio of 2:1. About 95% of herniated discs occur at the lower lumbar spine, between the L4 and L5 vertebrae and the L5 and S1 (sacrum).

It’s one good thing about getting older — as our discs dry out with age they become less malleable. While this can make us less fluid when it comes to our movements, it also makes the discs much less likely to herniate. They are simply too dry. That’s why if you’ve reached your 60th birthday, you’re far less likely to suffer from a herniated disc.

Now you know your discs and why they herniate. In October’s second blog, let’s get into what happens when a disc herniates, and how Dr. Tinley treats these effects. Until then, if you have chronic back pain, it’s time to call us at DFW Center for Spinal Disorders, (817) 916-4685.

Posted in: Herniated Disc

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