Collapsed discs are spinal discs that lose some of their water content, and as a result lose some of their height. In some circumstances, this height loss can lead to disc dysfunction and the onset of a variety of symptoms. Most people who develop a collapsed disc have degenerative disc disease, a condition associated with advancing age.
Collapsed Disc Causes
Your spinal discs, also called intervertebral discs, cushion and protect your spinal bones (vertebrae). Young, healthy people have discs with interiors that are approximately four-fifths water, and this high water content allows the discs to fully perform their function. However, the spinal stresses associated with everyday life gradually damage the outer disc material and lead to the formation of small tears or ruptures in this surface. Because of poor blood flow to this part of your body, this minor damage heals incompletely. As a result, your disc interiors slowly lose their water content and your discs “collapse” or decrease in height.
In turn, loss of disc height alters the anatomical relationships between the main bodies of your individual vertebrae by bringing them closer together. Loss of disc height also alters the normal position of joints at the rear of your vertebrae, called facet joints, that help give your back and neck much of their normal mobility. In some cases, the body tries to adjust to these changes by producing new bone material, called bone spurs, which can form whenever your vertebrae’s main bodies rub against each other or whenever there’s bone-on-bone contact inside your facet joints. If these bone spurs intrude upon your spinal cord or the nerves branching from this cord, you can develop symptoms related to your condition.
Collapsed Disc Symptoms
The most likely initial symptom of degenerative disc disease and a collapsed disc is pain in your lower back that radiates down through your gluteus muscles to your upper thighs. You can also develop a number of other symptoms, including pain that starts in your neck and radiates down your arm as far as your hand; numbness, tingling or other altered nerve sensations that appear in the same areas of your upper or lower body; and an inability to properly control the muscles in your leg. In addition, you can develop foot drop, a condition characterized by disruption of the nerve that helps maintain your normal foot position when you walk.
Some people experience decreases in their collapsed disc pain when they walk, lie down, run or alter their body position when they’re feeling pain. Conversely, some people experience pain increases when they lift something, bend or twist their backs or sit down.
Collapsed Disc Treatments
Effective first-line treatment for a collapsed disc usually includes a short period of rest, nonprescription painkillers or anti-inflammatories, and home exercises that promote a stronger back and general physical well-being. In some cases, people with the condition need prescription medication options such as oral or injectable corticosteroid anti-inflammatories, tricyclic antidepressants, muscle relaxants or opioids. A physical therapist can use a variety of techniques to address a collapsed disc, including heat and cold treatments, water exercises, neck braces, back braces, posture exercises, massage, ultrasound or electrical stimulation. Occasionally, a collapsed disc results in a need for surgical treatment.