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How the Spinal Disc Causes Pain

Back Be Nimble Newsletter - December, 2003

Spinal discs are essential components in the structure of the spine. They act as shock absorbing joints in the spine and undergo many movements and stresses throughout the day. However, when they are injured or deteriorate, they are often a source of back pain and/or pain in the extremities.

Anatomy of the spinal disc

Spinal discs are positioned in between each vertebra (the bony building blocks of the spine), and are essentially a soft pad between two hard bones. Structurally, the spinal disc is often described as a jelly donut, with two components:

  • Nucleus Pulposus - the inner core of the disc. This area is composed of a jelly-like material that consists of mainly water, as well as collagens and other materials.
  • Annulus Fibrosus - the outer portion of the disc. This is composed of a tough, fibrous material that surrounds and encases the softer inner core.

The disc's two components work in conjunction with each other to allow each disc to act as a spacer, shock absorber, and part of a joint that allows movement in the spine. With movement, the disc is pressurized and the outer core works to protect and contain the inner nucleus. This creates a disc that can withstand compression and other stresses, while allowing a great deal of movement and flexibility.

The following explains how two common disc problems create pain.

Herniated disc

If the annulus (outer portion) of a disc tears, the nucleus (inner portion) may herniate or extrude through the outer wall of the disc. The herniated material can compress the nerves around the disc and create pain that can radiate through the back and sometimes down the legs or arms. This condition is also commonly referred to as a slipped disc, ruptured disc, or pinched nerve.

Because spinal discs do not have a good supply of blood and nutrients in a person beyond the age of 25, herniated discs have a poor ability to repair themselves. Some studies show that increased water consumption along with supplements containing, glucosamine sulfate, MSM and/or chondroitin sulfate, can help in the healing process and slow degeneration.

Degenerative disc Naturally over time, or through some type of trauma, the disc may degenerate. While there is little agreement in the healthcare community about the exact nature of this condition, it is known that degenerated discs can often cause back pain. A degenerated disc can cause pain by:

  • When the disc degenerates it can cause instability or micro-motion in the area, which in turn can lead to an inflammatory reaction that results in low back pain.
  • Degeneration may cause the outer portion of the disc to tear, exposing or irritating the nerves on the outer edge of the annulus. If the material in the inner part of the disc comes in contact with these nerves, it can inflame the nerves creating a great deal of pain. Nerves surrounding the disc may suffer as well.

Contrary to what you might think, an injured disc does not necessarily cause pain in all people. In fact, many people actually have a herniated disc or several degenerated discs, but do not have any pain at all. For others, unfortunately, these types of injuries can cause severe pain.

Good seating and proper supportive devices in chairs keep the posture aligned so that less pressure is exerted on the disc. This is important in healing and prevention because the disc is supposed to be a non-weight bearing structure.


As can be seen, the spinal disc can be the source of much back pain. However, the disc is not a fragile and delicate component of the spine. It is a robust structure that must undergo the many stresses of everyday activities. Sometimes the initial pain generated from a spinal disc may not be easily avoided. However, it is always useful understand the role of a healthy disc in the spine and the anatomy.

We hope that this information on spinal discs and how they can generate pain will help you better manage your back health.

At Back Be Nimble, We bend over backwards to help your back be nimble again...

Best Wishes,

Dr. Brad Lustick
CEO and Ergonomic Supervisor

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