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Texas Neurosciences Institute - Methodist Healthcare - San Antonio, Texas
Back & Spine

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A DISC RUPTURES?

What causes a disc to rupture?
What are the symptoms of a ruptured disc?
How is a ruptured lumbar disc diagnosed?

When the outer lining (annulus) of a disc "tears," its center (the nucleus) may rupture and press a spinal nerve(s) against the bony surface of a vertebra.

This condition is often referred to as a ruptured disc. You cold think of it as having a tube of toothpaste with a crack in it. Exert pressure on the cracked tube (disc annulus) and toothpaste (disc nucleus) flows out the crack. Even pressure from everyday activities can push the disc’s nucleus through the ruptured annulus and pinch a spinal nerve root (s).

What Causes a Disc to Rupture?

As we’ve discussed, your lumbar spine supports the weight of your entire upper body and is under stress every day. Simple "wear and tear" or the effects of aging can contribute to a disc rupture. In some cases, the rupture happens during the course of normal, everyday activities. In other cases, it occurs as the result of a specific injury. Usually there is no way to "prevent" it from occurring, however, you can reduce your risk by staying in good physical condition and by using proper lifting techniques.

What are the Symptoms of a Ruptured Disc?

When a lumbar spinal nerve is pinched, you may experience pain in your lower back, pain or numbness in you legs(s), weakness in your legs or feet, or numbness in one or both of your feet. The pain can come from the pressure on the nerve, the swelling within the nerve (caused by the pressure) or injury to the nerve itself. Taking pain medication or drugs which reduce the swelling may provide relief, but healing may not occur as long as the nerve itself remains pinched. It’s similar to having your finger caught in a door. An aspirin may help to ease the pain, but healing won’t begin until the door is opened and your finger is no longer being pinched.

How is a Ruptured Lumbar Disc Diagnosed

The diagnosis of a ruptured lumbar disc is based on:

  1. your history of back and/or leg pain
  2. a physical examination of your back and legs, and
  3. diagnostic tests, which may include spine x-rays, an MRI scan, a CAT scan or a myelogram. (Each of these examinations has a specific purpose.

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