What exactly is a disc protrusion?

Intervertebral discs are made up of rings of fibrous cartilage on the outside with a more gel-like centre. The discs are like spacers that sit between each vertebra. The discs act as shock absorbers and also allow for mobility in the spine for movements like bending, lifting, turning around in the car and many other movements.

Sometimes, for various reasons, our inner gel-like material can move or bulge against the outer cartilage layer. When the bulge causes the disc to jut out more than normal or change shape as in the diagram below, we call this a disc protrusion. Disc protrusions can resolve over time or can even be found in people without any back pain. However, in some cases they can progress. When the gel-like material pushes past the other cartilage layer, we call this disc extrusion. The final stage, which is not as common, is disc sequestration, where pieces of the disc become fragmented and loose. 

These changes in the disc, can often lead to low back or neck pain with or without referred pain or pins and needles into the limbs, usually on one side. 

Disc protrusions can happen anywhere in the spine, although some areas occur more frequently than others. The cervical spine (neck) and lumbar spine (lower back) are the most common areas of disc protrusion. Disc protrusions most commonly occur in young and middle-aged adults. Herniation becomes less likely to occur in older adults as the discogenic material undergoes loss of water content and reduced height.

We see this type of thing a lot and there are plenty of treatments we can use to reduce your pain and improve your movement. Some key messages for you include continuing valued activities, while respecting pain. Movement and loading are good for our discs, even injured discs! Intervertebral discs get their nutrition through movement and loading. Activities like walking, running or resistance training are all excellent ways of feeding your discs. Of course, respect pain, meaning don’t push into significant pain, but if your pain doesn’t get any worse with the activities you love doing, then we recommend you keep doing them.

If you are experiencing worsening pain, weakness or numbness in the legs, don’t hesitate to contact us or your GP for a thorough assessment 

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