Ruptured and Herniated Disc Animation

Your doctor has just told you that your back pain is caused by a ruptured disc, also known as a herniated disc in your spine. Either term sounds bad, but what does it really mean?

This video animation can help you understand what happens when a disc in your spine (called an intervertebral disc) ruptures, and how it can contribute to your back or neck pain. Understanding the causes of herniated discs can be the first step in helping you get rid of the resulting back pain—and avoid it in the future.
Herniated disc in the low back regionA herniated disc is a common cause of back or neck pain. Symptoms may include numbness and tingling sensations too. Photo Source:

Intervertebral Discs Lend Structural Spinal Support

Your spinal column consists of 33 vertebrae that start near the base of your skull (cervical spine, neck) and end at your sacral spine, your pelvis. Vertebrae are bones that are stacked on top of each other and help provide places for ligaments and tendons to attach that lend strength, support, stability, flexibility, and mobility to your spinal column. The vertebral bodies are also a protective encasement for the spinal cord and create passageways for the nerve roots to branch beyond the spinal column.

Between the vertebrae are intervertebral discs, cushion-like shock-absorbing pads that reduce the impact of your movements by absorbing and distributing forces incurred during rest and activity. The discs are made up of a protective and tough outer layer (annulus fibrosus) and a gel-like inner material (nucleus pulposus).

An intervertebral disc bulges or ruptures when the inner gel pushes through a weakened area of the disc’s protective outer layer. This process may occur in several stages—a slight protrusion may initially form along the perimeter of the disc before the gel begins to seep out. This bulge can press against your spinal nerves, causing you pain. This process occurs in the degeneration and prolapse stages, which are the first 2 stages illustrated in the image below.
Disc abnormalitiesAn intervertebral disc may herniate suddenly, but more often, the process is gradual starting with disc degeneration, prolapse, extrusion (annulus fibrosus broken), and sequestration (disc herniation). Photo Source: the condition of the disc worsens, the annulus fibrosus may completely break open, allowing the interior material (nucleus pulposus) to leak out. The acidity of the nucleus is an irritant causing nerves to become inflamed and intensifying back or neck pain. This is represented by the extrusion and sequestration stages in the above illustration.

Common Causes of Disc Herniation

Back injuries are a major cause of herniated discs. Examples of injuries that can lead to a bulging or ruptured disc include car and sports accidents, and even lifting a heavy object the wrong way. In addition to injuries, herniated discs may also be caused by degeneration—the normal wear and tear that takes place in our spines as we age.

Depending on the extent or severity of the spinal injury or effects of degeneration, one or more discs may bulge or rupture. Your doctor will prescribe a treatment plan based on your symptoms, diagnosis and potential for development of spinal instability or neurological problems (eg, extremity weakness).

Common non-surgical treatment options for a herniated disc include pain medications and/or spinal injections, therapeutic exercise, and alternative therapies (eg, acupuncture). Most people with a herniated disc do not require spine surgery.

Updated on: 06/20/19
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