Disc Degeneration, Disc Bulging, Disc Herniation

Age and Disc Degeneration

The bones of our spine together are called vertebrae (each single bone is called a vertebra bone). Each vertebra is separated from the next by a disc made up of a soft gel-like center surrounded by a tough outer layer. These discs act as a cushion which prevents the bones from rubbing against each other.  

As people age, the gel-like inner part of the disc that contains mostly water may naturally dehydrate, or lose water. Like a tire that loses air, its ability to absorb shock is lessened. The  tough outer part of the disc also weakens and can form tears. This may not cause pain in some people. In others it may cause chronic pain, known as axial pain or disc space pain. This process is sometimes called ‘degenerative disc disease’, although it is not truly a disease but rather a natural part of the aging process.                                                                             

Image Credit: Blausen.com staff. “Blausen gallery2014“. Wikiversity Journal of Medicine. DOI:10.15347/wjm/2014.010. ISSN20018762.                                                                                

What is a Disc Herniation?


Herniated discs can be called by many names. A slipped disc, ruptured disc, or a bulging disc can all refer to the same medical condition.

When the tough outer part of the disc tears due to an injury or the aging process, the inner gel-like part can extrude or push through the tear. You might imagine something like a doughnut with jelly. Applying pressure forces the inner gel-like part to squeeze outside of the disc. This can put pressure on nerves and stimulate the symptoms of sciatica, or disc herniation.

Like a tree branching out, major spinal nerves extend out all along the spine to various organs, tissues and extremities. Herniated discs often press against these nerves. These ‘pinched nerves’ can cause radiating pain, numbness, tingling, and sometimes diminished strength and/or range of motion. Further, when the nerve comes in contact with the inner nuclear gel’s inflammatory proteins, a person may experience significant pain. Nerve-related pain is also known as ‘Radicular Pain’.

Symptoms to Watch

Out of every 50 people, one will experience a herniated disc at some point. For between 10 and 25 percent, symptoms will last more than 6 weeks.

  • Sudden pain in your lower back or hip that radiates to the back of your thigh and on your leg may indicate a protruding (herniated) disc pressing on your sciatic nerve.
  • If it feels like a bad leg cramp that lasts for weeks, it could be a disc herniation. You may have pain when you sit, sneeze, or cough. Feeling numb, weak, burning or tingling, or a pins-and-needles sensation down your leg are also signs.
  • You are more likely to get a disc herniation if you are 30 to 50 years old. It may result from general wear and tear, and sudden pressure on the discs that cushion the bones (vertebrae) of your lower spine.
  • In rare cases, a herniated disc may press on nerves that cause you to lose control of your bladder or bowel. You may also have numbness or tingling in your groin or genital area. This is an emergency situation that requires surgery. Phone your doctor immediately.