We have many people come into the clinic, here in Brighton and Hove, worried about whether or not they have a slipped disc, or disc herniation is the more medical terminology. So, we thought we would write a blog on discs, and the anatomy and typical causes of disc irritation.

Nerves play an important role in our body, sending signals from our brain to different parts of the body to tell it what to do and relaying signals back from our body feeding the brain vital information. Our spines can be thought of as a home for our nervous system. It is made up of 24 vertebrae which encompass and protect the spinal cord and has a spinal nerve exiting off to the body at each level.  

These spinal nerves can become compressed or “pinched” resulting in shooting pain, pins and needles, numbness and weakness, down either the legs or arms, depending on where the nerve is being compressed. One of the commonest causes of this is a disc herniation (also sometimes referred to as a slipped disc). 

The discs, which are made up of a soft inside and thicker outer shell, act as shock-absorbers for our spine. A disc begins to herniate when the soft inside pushes into the outer ring, usually causing some pain in the area. In some cases the soft inside can push all the way through the discs outer ring causing it to bulge, which is what causes pressure on the nearby spinal cord and spinal nerves. To worsen the situation, the disc material also causes a release of chemical irritants that contribute to nerve inflammation and therefore further compression. This can occur anywhere in our spines but it is most commonplace in the low back resulting in:

  • Low back pain 
  • Restricted movement in the low back
  • Numbness, pins and needles and weakness in one or both legs (sciatica)

So what causes this to happen?
Most disc herniations are a result of degenerative changes within the spine. Degeneration is a slow process that results in the discs shrinking and excess bone forming around the joint for stabilisation. Restrictions of movement within our spinal joints can accelerate this process. This is because discs don’t have their own blood supply and instead rely on nutrients being pumped in via movement of the spine, helping to keep the discs well hydrated and healthy. Disc herniations can also be caused by sudden trauma to the spine. 

Some people are more likely to experience problems with their disc. These include:

  • Age – most likely to occur between the ages of 20 and 50. 
  • Weight – being overweight puts added stress on the discs in the low back. 
  • Repetitive activities – certain activities can strain the spine such as lifting, pulling, bending and twisting. 
  • Posture – sitting for long periods increases the pressure on the spine and discs. 
  • Sedentary lifestyle – regular exercise is important to keep the spine healthy. 
  • Smoking – this lessens the oxygen supply to the disc accelerated degeneration. 

A disc herniation can be diagnosed by a healthcare professional such as a chiropractor or osteopath. They will ask you questions about your symptoms and then perform a thorough examination. This will usually involve some tests on the nerve such as checking the muscle strength, the reflexes and your sensation (what you can feel) in the legs. Your chiropractor or osteopath will also do some orthopaedic tests on the nerves and low back. Sometimes you will require some further imaging such as an X-ray or MRI scan to help identify the cause of your problem. 

Chiropractors and osteopaths can help to alleviate pain and other symptoms associated with a disc herniation by using a number of gentle techniques. Fortunately only a very small percentage of people will require surgery for a disc herniation. Most people will be symptom free by about 3-4 months however, the proper healing time for the disc tissues is between 6-18 months. This is why it is so important to take good care of your spine after experiencing a disc herniation, even if you feel amazing. This would include seeing a chiropractor or osteopath for regular care to keep symptoms at bay and allow for proper movement (and nutrition to the disc) within the spine, doing strengthening exercises for the muscles in the spine and making certain changes to your diet and lifestyle. 

Have you ever experienced problems with your discs? Had a professional diagnose you with a slipped disc? We would love to hear your experiences, especially with what has helped you to feel better and stronger following on from this problem. Post below with your comments!