Remember when your worst disc issues happened when someone scratched your favorite CD?
Now, your disc issues may be causing pain, numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness in your back, neck, arms, and legs.
Fortunately, understanding these rubbery discs, the role they play in your body, how they become damaged, and ways to help them heal can get you back to living a full and pain-free life.
The spine consists of 33 small bones stacked on top of each other. Together, this series of bones protect your spinal cord, a vital part of your central nervous system. They also are the rooting force in muscle attachments that help you do everything from wiggle your toes to reach the top shelf.
While the bones in your spine carefully move in conjunction with one another, they need a thick, rubbery cushion to act as a shock absorber. These are called intervertebral discs.
Made of thick, rubbery tissue called annulus fibrosus and filled with a gelatinous fluid called mucoprotein gel, intervertebral discs prevent the vertebrae from knocking into each other when you bend, twist, lift, or move. They also protect the nerves that emanate from the spinal cord to different parts of your body.
The Importance of Intervertebral Discs
The discs in your spine serve several important purposes in your body.
Think of how the shocks in your car work. Every time you drive over an imperfection in the road, fluid-filled pistons transfer the force from the tires to the body in a way that keeps your car driving smoothly. Your discs do the same thing for your spine. Every time you run, jump, hop, skip, or otherwise impact your body, the discs between the bones in your spine transfer the impact away from your spine, protecting the nerves in your back (especially the spinal cord).
Your central nervous system consists of your brain and spinal cord. From here, nerves emanate to the rest of your body helping you move, experience feeling and stay strong under strain.
When the vertebrae and discs are in their correct place, nerve signals travel unimpeded to and from the spinal cord which relays those messages to the brain. When vertebrae are out of place or discs rupture, deteriorate or move, nerve signals are impeded and messages to and from the brain and spinal cord do not travel the way they should. Your body interprets this interruption as pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness.
Symptoms of Disc Issues
Like most musculoskeletal problems, disc issues carry a few tell-tale symptoms.
While there are no nerves in intervertebral discs, their proximity to major nerves in the spine means that every time they move, slide, break, or swell they affect those nerves. A disc that has become compressed will compromise the nerves it is meant to protect. A disc that is ruptured isn't painful itself but will cause tremendous pain in the area of the back where the rupture happens.
Remember, pain is meant to be a protective signal for your body. If you are in pain, that means you need to address the root cause, not ignore it and hope it will go away.
Burning, Numbness, and Tingling
It seems strange that something happening in your back will cause burning, numbness and tingling in your hands, arms, legs, or feet. But if you'll recall, nerves start in your back and travel to other parts of your body. For example, your sciatic nerve begins in your lower back, runs down your hip and leg and ends in your little toe. If the sciatic nerve is compressed by a disc that isn't functioning the way it should, you might experience numbness and tingling everywhere from your lower back to your little toe.
Numbness and tingling are a signal that the nerve has been compromised somewhere along the pathway. While it feels strange, numbness and tingling are often precursors to greater pain or even muscle weakness.
If you exercise a muscle, it becomes stronger. However, if the muscle does not receive adequate electrical impulses from the nerve that innervates it, you experience muscle weakness. Often, disc issues in the neck are manifested in muscle weakness in the hands and disc issues in the lower back show up as weakness in the legs or feet. Again, as the disc degenerates, bulges, ruptures, or slides, it affects the ability of the surrounding nerves to communicate with both the muscles and your brain. That translates into muscle weakness in areas that are far away from the affected disc.
Causes of Disc Issues
Like most problems in your body, disc issues can stem from one or more causes.
As you get older, the moisture in your connective tissue begins to dry out. For other parts of your body, that means wrinkles and loose skin. In your spine, it means your intervertebral discs lose the interior fluid while the exterior tissue becomes more brittle. Over time, especially if you continue to perform high impact activities, the discs lose their ability to provide cushioning for the vertebrae or protection for spinal nerves.
Bending improperly, lifting while twisting, car accidents, or even falling can cause the intervertebral discs to break or slip out of place. In fact, injury is the leading cause of back pain in the country. Injuries to the discs are especially common in those whose jobs are physically demanding, but they can happen to anyone. The sudden jarring of a car accident, high-impact sports injury or fall can cause disc issues.
When you think of spurs you think of wild west lawmen and sharp-edged, spinning silver boot accessories. Bone spurs are similar in their sharp edges. Tiny, bony projections develop along the edges of bones where one meets together with another. Most bone spurs are associated with arthritis and can often go undetected for years as they grow. However, when they begin to rub against nerves that emanate from your spine, you can experience pain from the inflammation.
Degenerative Disc Disease
As scary as it sounds, disc problems are often caused by degenerative disc disease (DDD). An age-related condition, DDD happens when the discs wear down from general wear and tear. As they degenerate, you may experience pain, numbness, tingling, or muscle weakness, depending on where in the spine the degeneration happens. Which brings us to an excellent point.
Your spine is divided into four parts.
While it seems logical that disc issues can happen anywhere in the spine, it is important to note that your entire spine is not cushioned by intervertebral discs.
The first two bones in the cervical section of your spine are known as the atlas and axis. The atlas is named for the mythical god who was forced to hold up the world. Its job is to help your head stay stable. The axis allows your head to turn from side to side. These two bones must articulate with each other without interference from an intervertebral disc.
The sacrum is one continuous bone at the bottom of your spine that makes up a part of your pelvis. A stabilizing anchor for muscles in your hips and legs, the sacrum is one piece and does not have intervertebral discs.
That leaves 22 cervical vertebrae (5 cervical vertebrae, 12 thoracic vertebrae, 5 lumbar vertebrae) that are cushioned by tough, thick intervertebral discs. It also means most disc problems fall into one of three areas - the neck, the mid-back, and the lower back.
Diagnosing Disc Issues
Most disc issues can be diagnosed without invasive testing. A simple x-ray can tell a care provider whether your bones are properly spaced and areas of your back that may be experiencing disc problems. More advanced imaging like an MRI or ultrasound can pinpoint exactly the degree of damage that has happened to the discs. Once your care provider has a clear picture of which discs are affected, they can begin to formulate a treatment plan.
Treating Disc Issues
The human body has an amazing ability to heal itself, given the right set of tools. However, leaving a disc issue untreated can cause permanent damage to nerves affected by a slipped, bulging, herniated or degenerating disc. That is why most people turn to a physician when they experience pain, burning, numbness, or tingling often associated with a disc problem. Treatments often include one or more of the following.
One of the most common ways physicians treat disc issues is with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Often used over-the-counter, these medications are designed to reduce inflammation in the affected area. This, in turn, relieves pain associated with a disc issue.
When over-the-counter medications fail, many doctors prescribe pain medications to help a person function while their body heals. The only problem is that these medications do not address the underlying problems that are causing the disc issue in the first place. However, when medication is combined with other therapies aimed at healing the disc, it can serve a vital purpose in a rehabilitation plan.
Stretching & Strengthening
Disc issues are often caused by muscle weakness in a person's back, stomach, and legs. If these muscles are strengthened, the spine returns to its proper position and the disc can heal on its own.
Stretching and strengthening exercises are vital to a complete recovery, but when they are prescribed on their own, they do not relieve enough pain and discomfort for a patient to stick with them. In most cases, a patient will perform these exercises for a few days and when their discomfort intensifies, will quit altogether.
When used in conjunction with a pain-relieving plan, stretching and strengthening exercises are an important part of total recovery.
Many physicians feel that surgery is the answer for disc issues. A neurologist surgically repairs or removes the damaged part of the disc so it no longer presses on the nerve nearest to it. However, surgery of this nature is risky. The surgical field is very small and the margin of error is even smaller. Add in the risks associated with anesthesia and the recovery time associated with moving muscles and nerves in the back and surgery is not as attractive of an option as other less invasive treatments.
If surgery is the most invasive treatment you can receive for disc issues, chiropractic care is on the other end of the spectrum. Non-invasive and designed to be gentle, chiropractic care returns the vertebrae to their proper position, allowing the nerves that emanate from the spine to communicate effectively.
Over time, muscles begin to compensate for the spine's new position, holding it in place on its own. As the bones in the spine regain their position, so do the discs between them, relieving many of the symptoms associated with disc issues.
Spinal decompression is designed to treat disc issues with gravity.
This non-invasive therapy consists of sitting in a chair that reclines into a traction position. The chair uses gravity to gently lengthen the spine and allow the compressed or herniated disc to return to its normal size and position.
Many patients report relief in a single treatment. But over time, and with continued treatment, the disc often heals on its own as it returns to its proper place. When combined with ice and heat therapies, massage and stretching and strengthening exercises, spinal decompression has proven more effective than surgery for treating disc issues.
Whether your disc issues have been coming on gradually or seemed to happen all at once, do not wait for the pain, burning, numbness, or tingling to go away. Call CORE Chiropractic today or schedule your consultation online and find out how our non-invasive care can help resolve your disc issues.
Let CORE Chiropractic help you get back on track with personalized chiropractic care, spinal decompression and a custom treatment plan. Call today for your consultation, or schedule an appointment.