What Happens When the (Spinal) Disc Skips?

With the advent of technology and streaming services, effectively no one listens to music on compact discs (CDs) anymore. But for those who remember hearing your favorite tunes this way, especially with a beloved album that you played constantly, there was nothing worse than the terrible sound your speakers made when the disc skipped. Whether it was dirty, cracked, or scratched, it was a sad day when the disc no longer produced beautiful music. One way to envision chronic back pain is to think of it as a skipping of the disc, somewhere along the spinal column. The clinical criterial definition of chronic back pain is pain or discomfort anywhere along or arising from the spine that has lasted consistently for three months or longer. The severity of the pain experience can vary from person to person. But it is essential to pay attention to the symptoms and to have any pain that has lasted longer than a few months evaluated by a spine health expert.

Generally, when it comes to spine health, there can be some misconceptions about the causes of chronic back pain, and this has a lot to do with the clinical terms or definitions of the most common conditions involved in causing it. Among these misunderstandings is the often-interchangeable use of the terms slipped disc, bulging disc, ruptured disc, or herniated disc. These aren’t all the same condition, and patients can sometimes be confused by their meanings.

First, a spinal disc is the soft cushion of tissue that separates each vertebra in the spine. The disc consists of a tough outer layer and a gel-like inner layer. There are a variety of reasons a spinal disc may become damaged. From a traumatic injury like a car accident to chronic conditions like osteoporosis, when a spinal disc has become damaged, the result can range from no symptoms at all, to severe, debilitating back pain.

In the case of a slipped or herniated spinal disc, this condition occurs when the outer layer of a disc has become damaged, and the inner gel-like material leaks and pushes out through it. The leaked material can place pressure on the sensitive surrounding spinal nerves and can also compress the spinal vertebra due to the loss of the disc’s height. Especially when nerves are involved, a herniated disc can cause back pain accompanied by weakness or numbness in the arms and legs.

On the other hand, a bulging disc is typically considered a common aspect of aging and, in some people, causes no pain or noticeable symptoms at all. This condition occurs when a spinal disc bulges outside the usual space it is supposed to occupy within the spinal column. Unlike a herniated disc, the bulging disc does not rupture and the contents of it do not leak out. However, when a bulging disc results in back pain, it usually means that it has caused a narrowing of the spinal canal and, similar to a herniated disc, is placing pressure on delicate nerves.

Regardless of the specific cause of the disc damage, the first course of treatment is usually conservative options which may include specific pain relief medications, physical therapy, lifestyle remedies such as exercise with yoga, or weight loss, or chiropractic care. Over time, back pain will respond well to these conservative treatments in most people. But for some, more specific therapies like surgery may be required to resolve the underlying cause of the pain.

The spine is more than a row of bones stacked atop one another. It is an intricate network of vertebrae, discs, nerves, muscles, and ligaments that all work together to keep you moving well. When one part of the spine becomes damaged, it often causes a “domino effect,” placing undo pressure and stress on other parts of the spine. So, if you’ve been feeling the effects of constant spinal discomfort for more than 12 weeks, have it checked out. After all, there’s no better music than the quiet and sweet sound of relief from chronic back pain.




Neel Anand MD