Problems with your spinal discs, which sit between each bone of your spine, can lead to back pain, sciatica and other problems. This page explains what causes spinal disc problems, and how you can prevent and treat them.
What are spinal discs?
There is a spinal disc between each of the 24 bones (vertebra) in your spine. Your spinal discs act like shock absorbers in your spine, allowing you to bend and twist. The rubbery discs, also known as intervertebral discs, are filled with gel-like fluid, making your spine flexible.
Together the vertebrae and the discs surround and protect your spinal cord, the bundle of nerves that connects your brain to the nerves in your body.
Types of spinal disc problems
There are a few different types of disc problems, with one of the most common being a ruptured disc (also known as prolapsed, slipped or herniated disc). This is when the inner, gel-like material bulges out of a disc.
Other types of spinal disc problems include:
- degenerative disc disease, which is the natural change that happen to your discs as you age, and is not really a disease
- injury from falls or accidents
- cancers that affect the spine
What causes spinal disc problems?
The cause will depend on your type of spinal disc problem, such as prolapsed disc or degenerative disc disease.
Causes of prolapsed disc
The true cause is usually not known, but it is more common in people who:
- are middle aged
- are male
- do plenty of heavy lifting or strenuous physical activity
- sit for long periods
- are obese
Causes of degenerative disc disease
This condition is more common as you age. People who have had spinal injuries or infections are also more likely to get degenerative disc disease.
Symptoms of spinal disc problems
Common symptoms of disc pain include back pain and nerve pain.
Nerve pain can happen if the affected disc is pressing on a nerve. The most common nerve pain caused by disc problems is sciatica – where the affected disc presses on your sciatic nerve. This nerve travels from your hip and buttock down your legs. The pain can be sudden and sharp, and move down the nerve to your leg, calf and even foot, potentially causing numbness and tingling.
Diagnosis of spinal disc problems
Diagnosis usually involves:
- talking to you
- examining you, especially checking the movements of your spine and legs to check your muscle strength, flexibility and reflexes
Depending on your symptoms, you might also need to have imaging scans, such as X-ray, CT or MRI scans. This is to rule out any potential rare causes, including spinal cancer, bone growths (spurs), fracture or narrowing of spinal canal (stenosis).
However, most people with back pain feel better in a month. Scans can be expensive and won’t make you get better any faster, so talk to your doctor about whether you need them.
Treatment of spinal disc problems
What treatment you have will depend on the cause and severity of your symptoms and can include:
- over-the-counterpain killers
- prescription pain killers — if your pain isn't managed with over-the-counter medicines
- muscle relaxants if there is muscle spasm
- physical treatments such as massage and physiotherapy
- heat or cold treatment, such as placing a heat or cold pack on the affected area
- self-care techniques including keeping active. Try to keep moving and stretch regularly. Try not to stay in one position too long, for example sitting at a computer
- surgery — used rarely, and depends on your age, symptoms and success of other treatments
Most people with acute back pain improve rapidly within a month, often without treatment. Some continue to have pain for longer. Some might have a repeat of the pain at another time, while others won't.
Prevention of spinal disc problems and back injury
To reduce your risk of spinal disc problems, consider:
- keeping your body in the correct posture
- avoiding heavy lifting
- correct sitting position with regular breaks to move
- regularly doing exercises to strengthen your core stomach and back muscles
If you have undiagnosed back problems, see your doctor. You can also use healthdirect's Symptom Checker to learn when to seek professional advice.
Last reviewed: August 2018