How the Discs in Your Spine Work

The discs are situated between each of the vertebrae in your back. They are designed to cushion the bones and absorb some of the forces of impact when you run, bend or twist. There are two parts of each disc. The first part is the outer layer, which is firm and tough. This is where the nerve endings are located, and even a small tear could leave you with considerable pain. The inner part of the disc is like the middle of a jelly doughnut. If some of the proteins leak out, they irritate the tissues, leading to pain.

Where and How the Discs Often Degenerate

The discs in your spine receive little blood flow. This means that they are not able to repair themselves after an injury. Even a small tear could lead to a permanent problem and chronic lower back pain. Loss of fluid in the discs makes them thinner and less able to absorb forces, leading to persistent pain in your lower back. The loss of fluid or tears cause the discs to slowly degenerate. Although the lumbar discs in your lower back are most likely to degenerate, it can also happen in your cervical spine. You could also develop degenerative disc disease after an acute injury, such as a slip-and-fall accident. Other causes of disc degeneration include: 

  • Osteoarthritis of the spine
  • Trauma to the lower back
  • Growth of bone spurs that compress the nerve roots

Pain in the Lower Back

When the discs in your back leak fluid, nearby soft tissues become inflamed. The inflammation and irritation to the nerves sends pain messages to your brain. One of the earliest symptoms of degenerated discs is chronic back pain in the affected disc area. You might have pain that starts suddenly after an acute injury. Pain could also have a gradual onset, which is often the case when it is related to small tears or a leaking disc. You might notice that the pain is worse when you do a particular movement, such as bending over to pick up something from the floor or when you twist your back to reach for an item above your head. Some people notice that the pain is worse when they sit or stand for a long time. Changing positions sometimes provides temporary relief. 

Pain Down the Buttocks and Leg

Degenerated discs often cause irritation of one of the nerves in your back. The irritated nerve could send pain impulses down one side of your lower body, through your buttocks and into your hip and upper leg. This type of pain is called sciatica, in reference to the sciatic nerve. You may notice a burning sensation on the affected side. Moving or lifting that leg to take a step could be noticeably difficult. You could also have trouble with rapid movement, such as jogging, playing tennis or working out on an elliptical or stair-stepper exercise machine.

Impaired Flexibility and Mobility

A degenerated lumbar disc could cause considerable difficulty with your muscle control. This is because the nerves control the muscle movement. You may notice more difficulty with pointing your toes, lifting your foot to navigate stairs or moving to avoid a hazard, such as an item on the floor, a puddle in the street or an underfoot dog or cat. The reduction of flexibility is often worse at the end of the day, when you have been on your feet for a while or after you have been in the same position for a long time, such as seated at your desk for several hours. 

Numbness and Tingling in Your Extremities

When a disc in your lower back degenerates, you could experience numbness and tingling. The development of numbness and tingling often happens after the disc has been damaged for a long time or if you have had a sudden acute injury to your lower back. The numbness and tingling often starts in your toes and works its way through your foot and ankle. The tingling sensations are often paired with a chronic back pain in your lower back. If you notice even occasional tingling in your toes that is accompanied by an ache in your lower back, it is important to visit the spine health specialist for a diagnosis and treatment.

Seeking Care for Degenerative Disc Disease and Lower Back Pain

The symptoms of lower back aches, reduced flexibility, increased pain with activity, and numbness and tingling in your toes are early warning signs that you should visit the spine doctor. Degenerated discs and chronic back pain in the lower back are treatable. Speaking with a doctor about your symptoms allows you to make a plan for treatment.

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