Diagnosing Disc Problems
The term ‘disc’ is short for the ‘intervertebral discs’, the spongy cushions that separate the block-like bones (vertebrae) of the spine. These discs have a number of important functions including shock absorption, keeping the vertebral column stable and giving the vertebrae ‘pivot points’ to allow movement.Diagnosing Disc Problems
A disc is made of two parts: the elastic outer shell (annulus fibrosis) and the jelly-like contents (nucleus pulposis). It can handle quite a lot of pressure without damage, but certain types of pressure can damage the shell and push its contents out.
Symptoms of disc problems
The symptoms of a damaged disc can vary according to its location and severity. Many people who show evidence on scanning of damaged discs have no symptoms. This means that, most commonly, there are no symptoms at all. However, general signs may include:
Pain radiating down the legs
Worsening pain associated with bending over or sitting down for a long time
Worsening pain associated with activities like coughing or sneezing
Numbness or pins-and-needles in an arm or leg.
Risk factors for disc problems
Some people are more susceptible to disc problems than others. Risk factors include:
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.
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 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. Read More