Herniated Disc - What Happens
The gradual wearing out of
spinal discs is a natural part of aging that can often
lead to a
herniated disc. But only a few people who have
herniated discs have severe or troublesome symptoms.
Due to age,
injury, or both, a disc's outer layer, the capsule or annulus, may dry out and
develop tiny cracks. This causes the disc to bulge, break open (rupture), or
break apart. Often herniated discs bulge but do not rupture or break
Bulging disc. Some of the jellylike material
(nucleus) that fills the disc may leak into the cracks in the capsule. The disc
may begin to bulge out from between the bones of the spine (vertebrae). It
often bulges away from the spinal cord and nerve roots and therefore doesn't
Ruptured disc. The nucleus material inside the disc
breaks through the capsule.
Free fragment. Fragments of a ruptured disc may
break completely free of the disc and lodge in the
spinal canal , the opening in the vertebrae through which the spinal cord
Any of these stages can cause pressure on a nerve
root and symptoms of pain and numbness.
The cracks in the disc
capsule do not repair themselves, but the pain usually fades over time. About
50% of people with a herniated disc in the low back recover within 1 month. And
within 6 months, most recover.1
material from a herniated disc is broken down and absorbed by the body, a
resorption. In about 2 out of 3 people, the disc
herniation is at least partly gone after 6 months.2
Long-term herniated disc problems can
- Pain may come and go. Periods of time when pain
goes away (remission) occur less frequently.
- Long-lasting (chronic)
and recurring pain can develop because of continued tissue irritation caused by
the disc pressing on a nerve.
Chronic pain syndrome can result from having ongoing pain, causing depression,
anxiety, and difficulty coping with daily life.
- Symptoms caused by
long-term nerve root compression include loss of agility, strength, or
sensation in one or both legs and feet.
Compression of the bundle of nerve roots in the lower back
(lower lumbar region) can lead to weakness in both legs, and the loss of bowel,
bladder, and sexual function. This rare condition, called
cauda equina syndrome, requires immediate medical