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Problems with your spinal discs, which sit between each bone of your spine, can lead to back pain.

Problems with your spinal discs, which sit between each bone of your spine, can lead to back pain.
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Spinal disc problems

4-minute read

If you have back or neck pain and have lost feeling or movement in your limbs or are having problems controlling your bowels or bladder, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

What are spinal discs?

There is a spinal disc between each of the 24 bones (vertebra) in the spine. The spinal discs act like shock absorbers in the spine, allowing you to bend and twist. The rubbery discs, also known as intervertebral discs, are filled with gel-like fluid, making the spine flexible.

Together the vertebrae and the discs surround and protect the spinal cord, the bundle of nerves that connects your brain to the nerves in your body.

Types of spinal disc problems

One of the most common disc problems is 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 the discs as you age, and is not really a disease
  • injury from falls or accidents
  • infection
  • cancers that affect the spine

What are the symptoms of spinal disc problems?

Common symptoms of disc pain include back pain and nerve pain.

Back pain

The location and intensity of the back pain will depend on which disc is affected, and the resulting physical changes. You may also experience pain in your neck.

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 the sciatic nerve. This nerve travels from the hip and buttock down the legs. The pain can be sudden and sharp, and move down the nerve to the leg, calf and even foot, potentially causing numbness and tingling.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the back injury Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes spinal disc problems?

The cause will depend on the 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.

How are spinal disc problems diagnosed?

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, may involve radiation and won’t make you get better any faster, so talk to your doctor about whether you need them.

How are spinal disc problems treated?

The treatment you have will depend on the cause and severity of your symptoms and can include:

  • over-the-counter pain 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, physiotherapy or osteopathy
  • complementary therapy such as acupuncture or treatment by chiropractors
  • 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.

Can spinal disc problems be prevented?

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

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2020

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