What does this mean? The intervertebral disc is a thick, fibrous, oval cushion between two vertebrae, or spinal bones.
Visualize a doughnut. The outside of the doughnut, or disc, is made of very thick, interwoven fibers. The hole of the doughnut is filled with a thick liquid, with a consistency like mucous. (Not a very appetizing doughnut, I know.) This mucous is called the nucleus pulposis. If you have ever taken physics, you know that compressing a liquid that has nowhere to escape makes the liquid hard as a rock. Thus, when you stand and put weight on your spine, the nucleus pulposis in the middle of your intervertebral discs becomes a very hard ball bearing, allowing the bones of your spine to pivot and rotate.
Sometimes the fibers that make up the outside of the disc become slightly damaged, usually over a period of years. One particularly damaging motion occurs when you bend at the waist and rotate your chest, as in when you bend to pick up a package and turn to place it on the ground. This causes tiny tears in the fibers of your discs. If the tears get bad enough, some of the nucleus pulposis starts to leak out of the middle of the disc, making its escape to the outer edges.
When this happens, almost always the story goes something like this: “I was just bending down to tie my shoe, and I felt a pop in my back, and I have been in excruciating pain ever since.” Or maybe “I was just bending in the shower …” You get the picture. A damaged disc almost never happens when you notice the pain. It has been slowly happening for months, or even years.
The pain from a bulging disc happens because the bulge is putting pressure on your sensitive nerves. Some positions often help relieve the pressure, and therefore the pain. Some people lie on their backs with their feet on a chair. Others lean forward to walk, while others find it necessary to lean to one side when they are standing upright. The good news is that your body does heal from a disc injury. Sometimes it takes several months. Chiropractic care can help the healing process, and there are exercises to help injured discs regain function.
The best methods for maintaining healthy discs are pretty simple. Discs absolutely need water to perform. Sodas, coffee and alcohol are all substances that actually remove water from your body, so drink simple H2O every day, several times a day. Walking helps maintain healthy, fully functioning discs. Also, you guessed it, regular chiropractic care keeps the vertebrae stacked and moving properly, helping your discs stay healthy.
Here is a fun fact: Do you ever feel taller when you get up in the morning? Actually, you are. While you are sleeping, your discs re-absorb much of the water that was squeezed out with the previous day’s activity. If you measure yourself first thing in the morning and last thing at night, you might notice a few millimeters difference in your height.
Meghan Palmer is a chiropractor and freelance writer in Rutledge, Tenn.