Back in 1989, when I first began treating patients with back and neck pain, most people were aware that the bones in their spine were separated by discs (likely a result of effective chiropractic marketing). Unfortunately, due to that same widespread chiropractic marketing, a majority of my patients believed that their discs could “slip” out of place—just like a wayward tomato slice might slip out from a sandwich, I suppose.
The discs in your spine are far more complex than a stack of circles which are prone to “slip out of place”. Instead, they are masterfully engineered structures with a firm outer body (constructed like a radial tire), filled with a soft, gelatinous inner core, and woven snugly between the bones of our spines.
Walking the line between accuracy and over-simplification myself, let me begin by explaining what happens to the discs in your spine to make them part of the pain package you may be experiencing.
First of all, let me be clear about this: God has so tightly knit our discs to our vertebral bones that there is absolutely no way that discs can “slip”! Rather, they crack (fissure from the inside out), bulge, and can eventually rupture, or herniate.
The damage to our discs (which is correctly referred to as degenerative disc disease) begins when we habitually assume bad postures, sit slumped, or endure gross trauma or repetitive micro-trauma (prolonged or heavy lifting, bending, etc.). As a result, our discs develop stress fractures—fissure lines running from the inside out. Through these cracks, the soft, central portion of our discs begins to migrate outward.
Eventually, the disc may have a visible, space-occupying bulge which itself can cause pain, or can press up against a sensitive nerve and send pain clear down the leg. If the firm outer edge of the disc becomes torn straight through, the inner disc “gel” is released, wreaking havoc on all it comes up against.
Here’s the good news: While fully ruptured (herniated) discs will always leave you with a potentially “weak link” in your spine, bulging discs can be fully healed! And from my experience, patients with both conditions can often be rehabilitated to live highly functioning, pain free lives!