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Spine Surgery Guide

Anatomy of a Herniated Disc

The spine is made up of a chain of bones, called vertebrae , which are connected together by ligaments and muscles. The vertebrae cover and protect the spinal cord which carries sensory messages to and from the brain controlling all your body functions.

A disc separates each vertebrae and acts like a cushion, absorbing shock along the spine.
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The disc is a cartilage-like material made up of a jelly-like substance known as the nucleus, covered with many strong, fibrous outer layers called the annulus. These tissues do not have a rich blood supply like most other body tissues to nourish and replenish them; rather, disc tissue depend on a transfer of fluids, nutrients and oxygen from the bones (vertebral bodies) above and below them. This transfer of fluid depends on the difference in pressure between the inside of the discs and the surrounding vertebrae and blood vessels. This is why most disc nutrition and regeneration takes place when we lie down and the pressure inside the discs is reduced. This process is not very efficient, and slows down as we age, so that the disc is exposed to wear and tear exceeding its ability to heal and regenerate.

The discs are prone to injury and degeneration as we use our backs each day because they are compressed and torqued through sitting and standing, bending and lifting. Repeated injury weakens the annulus resulting in tears. With continued pressure inside the disc, the tears in the annulus may allow the disc to bulge like an old tire with a weak sidewall. Any internal damage to the disc may cause severe pain in the back. If all of the layers of the annulus break, the jelly-like nucleus will ooze out of the disc resulting in a disc herniation or prolapse. A bulging or herniated disc may press on (pinch) spinal nerves causing malfunctions which can be felt as weakness in your muscles, loss of sensation in the skin, or a tingling or burning sensation along the nerves and, of course, pain.

Repeated episodes of injury results in the degeneration of the disc which becomes stiff and dry causing it to lose its shock absorbing properties, and making it more prone to yet another injury. This process may continue until the disc is collapsed which increases the mechanical pressure on the bones and joints and may eventually lead to arthritis.
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This information is not designed to replace a physician's independent judgment about the appropriateness or risks of a procedure for a given patient.
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