A Closer Look at the Discs in Your Spine and What Can Go Wrong

Oct 02, 2023

A Closer Look at the Discs in Your Spine and What Can Go Wrong

Back discomfort is the most common pain complaint in the United States, and disc problems are a leading cause of back pain.

The multispecialty team at Coastal Spine in New Jersey specializes in diagnosing and treating painful joint and spine conditions affecting mobility and quality of life.

Our services include interventional pain management and nonsurgical and minimally invasive surgical solutions for damaged or malfunctioning discs.

Learn more from our team about the basic structure and function of spinal discs and the problems that affect them.

Disc basics

Your spine has 23 rubbery cushions (spinal discs) that sit snugly between the vertically stacked bones (vertebrae) in the spinal column. Each is about 4 centimeters in diameter (1.57 inches) and less than a half-inch thick (7-10 millimeters).

Spinal discs are made up of an inner gel-like substance (nucleus pulposus) wrapped in an outer layer of fibrocartilage (annulus fibrosus). The inner core provides cushioning, while the tougher outer tissue helps maintain the disc’s strength, shape, size, and function.

Benefits of healthy discs include:

Shock absorption

Just like shock absorbers in vehicles, the discs help dampen the forces exerted on the spine when you walk, jump, or engage in any movement.

Spinal stability and flexibility

Intervertebral discs act as ligaments that help maintain spinal alignment and facilitate the spine's limited flexibility, allowing you to bend, twist, and turn.


Discs protect against friction by keeping the vertebrae separated, preventing the bones from grinding against each other.

What can go wrong with a spinal disc?

Spinal discs can suffer damage during car accidents, falls, and other traumatic events. More frequently, however, discs wear over time, making them susceptible to various ailments as we age. Common disc issues include:

Herniated disc

Disc herniation occurs when the inner disc material pushes (herniates) through a cracked or weakened annulus fibrosus.

Depending on the location of the rupture, a herniated disc may compress or pinch nearby spinal nerves or, more commonly, cause inflammation and pain as the inner disc material comes in contact with nerve roots.

Bulging disc

A bulging disc occurs when the outer disc material flattens and protrudes outside its normal boundary. However, unlike with disc herniation, the inner material doesn’t push through the outer tissue.

While it might not always cause symptoms, a bulging disc can encroach on nearby nerves. The resulting symptoms of pain, numbness, and weakness can affect the entire area served by the nerve (dermatome).

For instance, a bulging disc compressing the sciatic nerve in the lower (lumbar) back can cause sciatica symptoms in the buttocks, hips, and legs.

Degenerative disc disease

Aging can cause discs to dry and thin and become less flexible as they lose moisture, lessening their cushioning ability. That often leads to stiffness, pain, and reduced mobility. It also increases your risk of herniated or bulging discs.

Repetitive motion, such as twisting, bending, and lifting during work activities, sports, or hobbies, can also cause early degenerative changes in the intervertebral discs.


Infection can cause inflammation of an intervertebral disc (discitis), sometimes leading to severe pain that may require antibiotic treatment.

Treating disc problems

Your treatment at Coastal Spine starts with a thorough evaluation to accurately diagnose the cause of your symptoms. Based on those results, our team develops individualized strategies that may include medication, physical therapy, and activity modification.

You may also benefit from interventional pain management therapies such as epidural steroid injections to reduce nerve inflammation and irritation.

Should conservative treatments fail, your Coastal Spine provider may recommend surgery as your best treatment option.

Schedule an evaluation at Coast Spine today by calling one of our six locations or requesting an appointment online.