The bones in your back, called the vertebrae, are separated and supported by intervertebral discs. These cartilaginous discs provide support, structure, and cushioning to your vertebrae, normally allowing you to bend and move freely.
As we age, our intervertebral discs naturally begin to dehydrate (desiccate). This causes them to become more fragile and brittle, which can eventually lead to damage. When the outer layer of a disc, or the annulus fibrosus, degenerates so that it loses height and shrinks, this is known as a collapsed disc. Spinal arthritis (AKA osteoarthritis of the spine) and degenerative disc disease are the most common causes of a collapsed disc.
A collapsed disc in the back or neck isn’t necessarily a problem. Many people have a collapsed disc and don’t even realize it or feel any symptoms. Problems occur when the weakened collapsing disc can tear or herniate leading to inflammation and pressure on nearby nerves or the spinal cord. This process may allow the vertebrae to rub together painfully.
Symptoms of a Collapsed Disc
When a collapsed disc disturbs the spine, it can result in painful symptoms that include the following:
- A Herniated or Bulging Disc: When you have a collapsed disc in back, the decay can lead to a herniated or bulging disc. These conditions occur when the disc’s inner layer, the nucleus pulposus, forces the disc outside its usual shape or escapes entirely. This can aggravate nerves, causing pain and discomfort throughout much of the body.
- Bone Spurs: When a disc collapses it gets smaller. This can force vertebrae to rub against each other, which may eventually cause growths called bone spurs. These natural extensions of the spine are sometimes painless, but they can easily disrupt or compress nearby nerves too.
- Numbness and Tingling: As a disc shrinks and collapses, it can close in around vital nerves and the spinal cord. This increased pressure can cause feelings of numbness and tingling, as well as muscle weakness. These are some of the most important symptoms to have evaluated by a physician, as they can be a precursor to lasting damage.
- General Pain: Along with causing numbness and tingling, a collapsed disc may also cause pain if it disrupts nerves or the spinal cord. Depending on what part of spine the collapsed disc in back is located in, you may feel pain anywhere from your head to the soles of your feet.
A collapsed disc can be extremely painful, which is all the more reason to see a physician as soon you become aware of symptoms.
Diagnosing a Collapsed Disc
To diagnose a collapsed disc, a physician will begin with a physical examination and by taking your medical history. If your symptoms match problems associated with a collapsed disc or other back problem, he or she will likely order medical imaging. Visuals from an X-ray, MRI, or CT scan will provide the medical data needed to determine if a collapsed disk is a contributing factor to your symptoms. They will also help doctors determine whether bone spurs are present, or if undue pressure is being put on your nerves or spinal cord.
Treating a Collapsed Disc
A collapsed disc can’t be corrected, but its symptoms can often be treated. Physicians often prescribe a combination of the following treatments:
- Exercise: By strengthening the muscles around the spine, losing weight, and improving flexibility, it’s sometimes possible to reduce symptoms of back problems. Your physician may recommend physical therapy, low-impact aerobics, or yoga.
- Medication: The pain associated with a collapsed disc in back or neck can be difficult to manage, and medication may be prescribed to help. This can range from simple painkillers and anti-inflammatories to more powerful treatments, like spinal injections.
- Surgery: If more conservative treatments fail to produce results, your physician may recommend looking at surgical options. Minimally invasive surgical procedures may be an option to treat painful bone spurs, pinched nerves, and other symptoms caused by a collapsed disk.
If you’re experiencing significant back pain or discomfort, talk to your physician about your treatment options. They can work with you to uncover the cause of your symptoms and help put together a treatment plan that works for you.