If you are one of 31 million Americans experiencing back pain, neck pain, or low back pain, a “slipped” disc or herniated disc may be the cause.
But what exactly is a herniated disc, and how does it become injured?
The spine consists of 24 blocky bones (vertebra) stacked on top of each other in a flexible column that allows our body to move. Between each vertebra sits a soft, rubbery cushion made of cartilaginous fibers and hydrated proteins known as an intervertebral disc.
Intervertebral discs, like brake pads in a car, operate as shock absorbers for our spine. Running, bending over, sitting, jumping on a trampoline, and other physical actions are all absorbed by discs. Intervertebral discs also absorb physical stresses that are sustained in stationary situations, such as sitting for lengthy periods of time at a football game or in front of a computer.
Intervertebral discs are located along the spine in our neck, mid back, and lower back. They also bend and twist with movements of the spine, allowing our bodies to be flexible.
How do they accomplish this? Intervertebral discs are shaped like jelly donuts with a tough, fibrous outer portion known as the annulus fibrosis and a soft, gel-like inner portion called the nucleus pulposus. This combination of a more rigid exterior and softer interior allows it to distribute the forces we encounter with our everyday activities and physical exertion – all because this bendable disc absorbs the forces of physics.