What is a Herniated Disc – Part 1

The spine is made up of individual bones (vertebrae) and discs, which are rubbery cushions between the vertebrae. These discs are like a jelly doughnut with a softer center encased in a tougher exterior. A herniated disc (also known as a slipped disc torn disc or a ruptured disc) occurs when some of the softer “jelly” pushes out through a tear in the tougher exterior.

A herniated disc can irritate nearby nerves resulting in pain, numbness or weakness in the arms or legs. In some cases, people experience no symptoms from a herniated disc. Most cases do not require surgery to correct the problem.

It is important to understand the cause of the disc herniation in determining the best treatment options for the condition. For example, a doctor may recommend a different form of treatment for a herniated disc that developed gradually from weight gain as opposed to a herniated disc that developed suddenly from an auto accident.


Let’s back up a minute. The spinal column begins at the base of the skull and spans from the cervical spine in the neck through the thoracic spine in the middle back and into the lumbar spine in the lower back. There are 24 individual vertebral bodies and several fused vertebrae in the pelvic region. The spinal column is flexible enough to allow for the full range of motion in the neck and back that’s required for daily activity and strong enough to support the weight of the upper body.

Discs serve as shock-absorbing cushions for the spine. They are positioned between adjacent vertebrae to facilitate movement and reduce friction. Each disc has two parts (1) a thick exterior composed of collagen fiber (annulus fibrosus). This surrounds and contains (2) an inner core of protein gel (nucleus pulposus). These components are high in water content and must remain well hydrated and pliable in order to function properly.

For a variety of reasons, the discs can begin to deteriorate and dehydrate over time, becoming brittle and prone to breakage. If a fissure develops in a disc’s annulus fibrosus, some of the nucleus pulposus can pass through its compromised boundary. This condition is referred to as a herniated disc. Pain and other uncomfortable symptoms can develop if displaced inner disc material, which contains inflammatory proteins, irritates or pressures the disc wall, the spinal cord or a nearby nerve root.

A herniated disc can result from a number of factors, including:

  • The natural aging process – due to the cumulative effects of an aging body and ongoing wear and tear on the spinal components, the discs gradually weaken and become more susceptible to rupture.
  • Spinal trauma – injuries that results from a forceful blow to the spine can cause immediate disc herniation.
  • Repetitive stress – sitting for prolonged periods or repeatedly lifting heavy objects can cause a series of small tears to develop in the disc’s outer wall, tears that can worsen over time and lead to full disc herniation.
  • Unhealthy body weight – the spine must support the majority of the body’s weight, and the pressure of carrying extra pounds, particularly in the abdominal region, can strain and damage the spinal components.
  • Poor nutrition – an unbalanced diet can lead to weight gain and also deprive the discs of the nutrients needed to remain supple and strong.
  • Tobacco use – smoking inhibits circulation and interferes with the delivery of essential nutrients throughout the body, including the spine. Cigarette smoke also contains a multitude of toxins that can affect the discs as well as other parts of the body.
  • Genetics – a family history of disc herniation and other degenerative spine conditions can increase the likelihood an individual will develop similar conditions.

Look for more about this topic in an upcoming post from the Desmond Law Office.