We have all heard the term “slipped disc”. Oftentimes this is in reference to experiencing sharp pain in the low back or neck. However, this is not an accurate description of what is occurring, our discs cannot “slip” out of place. Discs cannot “slip” but they can create pressure on the surrounding nerve tissue.
The vertebral disc in the spine is an interesting and unique structure. The discs throughout the spine have three primary functions:
- They act as shock absorbers in the spine, positioned between each bony vertebra.
- They act as tough ligaments that hold the vertebrae of the spine together.
- They are cartilaginous joints that allow for slight mobility in the spine.
There are a total of 23 vertebral discs in the spinal column, one in between each spinal vertebra. Specific problems with any of these discs may prompt unique symptoms, including pain that originates in the disc itself and/or pain that is related to the disc pressing on a nearby nerve structure.
Spinal discs are actually composed of 2 layers. They have a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus and a squishy inner layer called the nucleus pulposus. The outer layer is made of thick collagen fibers and is designed to bond the disc to the top and bottom of the bone that it resides between. This prevents the disc from “slipping”. The inner layer is made of a jelly-like material that is important for shock absorption for our spine.
These discs are very secure in between the bones, preventing slipping, but they can still cause pain by herniating. Our discs act as a cushion between our vertebrae, when we are born our discs are made of 80% water. In order to maintain their shock absorption they require proper hydration. As we age our discs and joints lose a certain amount of hydration, or we are not staying hydrated which can cause the discs to become stiff. Once the disc becomes stiff it can not properly cushion the vertebrae which can lead to lack of range of motion, joint stiffness, or pain. The outer layer of the disc, the annulus fibrosus loses its hydration first and can crack. When the outer layer cracks the gelatinous inner layer can seep through the crack and begin to bulge. The most likely place for the annulus fibrosus to crack is in the posterior area. This is the area that is closest to the spinal cord. When the inner layer, the nucleus pulposus, bulges (herniates) posteriorly it places pressure on the spinal cord and the surrounding nerve roots.
This disc herniation can occur at any level of the spine. It is most commonly found in the neck and low back because those areas bear more postural weight. Once the disc places pressure on the nerves it can cause sharp, shooting pain, up or down the spine. It may also cause numbness, burning, or tingling sensations. The cracking of the outer layer occurs because of dehydration but is exacerbated by pressure being put on the disc. This pressure can be due to incorrect posture.
The protruding gelatinous material can be reabsorbed if proper disc health is achieved. We can also prevent disc herniation through a few ways.
- Improving posture through chiropractic care which will help remove the pressure placed on the spinal cord and nerve roots.
- Core strengthening exercises to help withstand forces placed on our spinal column.
- Staying hydrated!
- Learning and using proper lifting biomechanics.
- Sleeping on a firm and supportive mattress.
Proper spinal alignment is important for disc health because it allows the forces from gravity that are exerted on our spine to be evenly distributed throughout our body. Spinal alignment also helps to remove the pressure from the nerves. At Keystone Specific Chiropractic Center we use a technology called digital infrared technology to monitor where there is pressure along the nervous system. We also use state of the art x-rays to see where there are postural and structure misalignments in the spine. We make sure to give at-home exercises to help with spinal hygiene as well.
If you are curious how chiropractic care can help with disc health then schedule a consult today!