Understanding Disc Damage: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Understanding Disc Damage: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Damaged discs are among the most common causes of excruciating back pain. Problems in the intervertebral discs mainly occur in the lumbar spine, more rarely in the cervical vertebrae and only very rarely in the thoracic vertebrae. Common reasons are poor posture, lack of exercise or one-sided strain – the pressure on the spine poses a risk for the intervertebral disc. How can complaints be treated effectively?

How does disc damage occur?

The intervertebral discs consist of a fibrous ring with a gelatinous core. They lie between the vertebral bodies in the spine, making the spine flexible and acting as a “cushion”.

There are various reasons for damage to the intervertebral discs: Too little exercise and predominantly sedentary activity cause the abdominal and back muscles to weaken. The spine is no longer sufficiently stabilized, and the intervertebral discs can bulge. A herniated disc occurs if the fibrous ring tears and gelatinous mass escapes.

Even those who weigh too many kilos risk intervertebral disc problems because being overweight is one of the most critical factors for incorrect loading and premature wear and tear of the intervertebral discs.


Incorrect loading and accidents are the cause.

Mishandling heavy objects or lifting loads that are too heavy can trigger an acute herniated disc. There is also a risk of overloading during pregnancy because the body’s centre of gravity is shifted forward, and more water is stored in the intervertebral discs due to hormonal changes. They lose stability, which favours a prolapse of the gelatinous core.

Accidents can also result in a herniated disc, for example, falling down the stairs. Rarely are inflammatory processes the cause of intervertebral disc problems.

Disc damage: typical symptoms

Not every disc change has to lead to symptoms. The symptoms only appear when a bulging intervertebral disc presses on the surrounding nerves. This often manifests as a pulling pain in an arm or leg, often combined with sensory disturbances such as tingling or numbness.

If the intervertebral disc presses against the spinal cord, this can result in increasing weakness in both arms and legs. If the pressure on the nerves persists for a more extended period, symptoms of paralysis can even occur. In some cases, control of bladder and rectum function is lost.

Sensory disturbances in the genital area, on the inside of the thighs and paralysis of the legs are typical signs. Because the numbness occurs in the area where a rider comes into contact with the saddle, it is also called breeches anaesthesia (anaesthesia = anaesthetic).


Diagnosis of disc damage

The medical history of the patient and an orthopaedic-neurological examination are essential for the diagnosis. In many cases, it is already possible to say with a high degree of probability at which point the intervertebral disc is bulging.

A computed tomography ( CT ) or magnetic resonance imaging ( MRI ) of the affected spinal region can confirm or refute the diagnosis.

Types of disc damage

Depending on where the disc damage occurs, there are different types:

  • Cervical disc damage occurs in the cervical spine (cervical spine).
  • Lumbar disc damage is disc damage in the area of ​​the lumbar spine (LWS).
  • Thoracic disc damage occurs in the area of ​​the thoracic spine (thoracic spine) but is extremely rare.

One speaks of a cervical herniated disc with radiculopathy when there is also damage or irritation of a nerve root. This leads to pain radiating along the nerve to the fingers. In conjunction with disc damage in the lumbar spine, radiculopathy leads to leg problems.

Exercise as part of treatment

Herniated discs that are not associated with paralysis bladder or rectum disorders should be treated conservatively, i.e. without surgery.

In the past, those suffering from pain were first prescribed bed rest – this is no longer an issue today. On the contrary, Targeted movement is part of the treatment right from the start. In physiotherapy, patients learn to move as pain-free as possible. Initially, this often only works with painkillers and medication for muscle relaxation.

If there are problems with the intervertebral discs, the intervertebral discs must be relieved. Continuous training of the core muscles has proven to be a perfect remedy for persistent low back pain. A physiotherapist can explain which exercises they should do daily to the person concerned.


In case of muscle paralysis, go to the hospital immediately.

 Be careful with muscle paralysis, as the longer the paralysis lasts, the lower the chances of complete recovery . You need to be seen in a hospital immediately and operated on as soon as possible. A surgical procedure is otherwise only considered if all non-surgical forms of treatment have been unsuccessful.

Herniated disc: conservative therapy and surgery

Conservative therapy requires a little patience. If possible, the person concerned should allow for a few weeks of intensive, inpatient treatment.

During an operation, the destroyed disc tissue is removed, which relieves the cramped nerve roots. There are now gentle procedures such as microsurgery. Neurosurgeons work here with a surgical microscope; the access created is only a few centimetres. Scarring and discomfort after the operation are reduced.

An operation on an intervertebral disc always involves risks: damage to the nerves and blood vessels, infections, and subsequent spine instability cannot be ruled out. If scars form in the surgical area, the symptoms can always recur. An operation is, therefore, only performed if it is urgently needed and the expected benefits are significantly higher than the risks.

Prevent a herniated disc.

Everyone can do something for their back themselves to avoid disc problems. This includes continuous training of the back and abdominal muscles so that the spine is stabilized for the daily demands. Because a well-trained muscle corset takes over a good part of the mechanical loads. In back schools, you learn how to strengthen critical muscle groups and correctly bend, carry, sit, stand and lie down.

Backstroke swimming, hiking or cycling are also recommended to strengthen the muscles and thus prevent damage to the intervertebral discs. Physical activity also lifts your spirits.

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