Can Your Intervertebral Disc Slip?

June 27, 2017 | Chiropractic, Wellness

What you Need to Know About your Intervertebral Disc Health.

The intervertebral discs are a series of small cushions located in between each of the vertebrae. There are 23 discs in the human spine. There are 6 in the neck (cervical region), 12 in the middle back (thoracic region), and 5 in the lower back (lumbar region). The intervertebral disc links each vertebra to the one above and below it. It keeps them separated and to allow slight movement of the vertebrae. It also acts as a ligament to hold the vertebrae together. They play an important role as shock absorbers of the spine. Each disc is similar to a jelly donut with a softer center (nucleus) encased within a tougher exterior (anulus fibrosus).

Slipped Disc

A “slipped disc” is actually a misnomer. The disc never moves out of place. It is securely lodged in between two vertebrae. The intervertebral disc space can be seen on an X-ray as the space between adjacent vertebrae. However, we can not see the intervertebral disc itself. In a healthy spine, this space should be thick and regular throughout the spine. Seeing the actual disc requires an MRI or CT scan.

Degenerative Disc Disease:

Your chiropractor or medical doctor may have told you that you have degenerative disc disease (“DDD”), also called degenerative joint disease (“DJD”). In simple terms, it means that your disc has gotten thinner, usually due to mechanical stress or pressure on the joint. When a disc gets thinner, it decreases the space between the two vertebrae it is connected to and can sometimes lead to neck and back pain.

Before the age of 40, approximately 25% of people show evidence of disc degeneration at one or more levels. This percentage increases to 60% after the age of 40.

One effect of DDD is that the nucleus begins to dehydrate, limiting the ability of the intervertebral disc to absorb shock. The anulus fibrosus also becomes weaker with pressure and has an increased risk of tearing and causing a disc herniation. Your chiropractor can help slow down the process of DDD by maintaining mobility in the joint and decreasing the pressure exerted on the disc.

Disc Bulge vs Disc Herniation:

A disc bulge is often the result of DDD. Because of pressure exerted on the disc, it protrudes beyond the size of the vertebrae it is in between. You can compare it to a hamburger that is slightly bigger than the bun. With a disc bulge, the nucleus is usually intact.

Further pressure or trauma, can cause the nucleus of that disc to herniate. Imagine the spinal disc being like a jelly donut: a herniated disc occurs when some of the softer “jelly” pushes out through a tear in the tougher exterior.

Bulging and herniated discs occur more frequently in the cervical and lumbar spine due to the spinal curvature and movement in those regions. Depending on the direction of the bulge or the hernia, it can irritate nearby nerves. This can result in pain, numbness or weakness in an arm or leg.


If your herniated intervertebral disc is in your lower back, you’ll typically feel the most intense pain in your buttocks, thigh, and calf. It may also involve part of the foot. If your herniated intervertebral disc is in your neck, the pain will typically be most intense in the shoulder and arm. This pain may shoot into your arm or leg when you cough, sneeze or move your spine into certain positions. People who have a herniated disc often experience numbness or tingling in the body part served by the affected nerves. Muscles served by the affected nerves also tend to weaken. This may cause you to stumble, or impair your ability to lift or hold items.

On the other hand, many people experience no symptoms from a herniated or bulging disc. They are a common incidental finding in asymptomatic individuals.

In most cases, people cannot point to an exact cause of their herniated disc. Sometimes, improper lifting techniques to move large, heavy objects can lead to a herniated disc. Your spine is also vulnerable when twisting and turning while lifting. Rarely, a traumatic event such as a fall or a blow to the back can cause a herniated disc.

What to Do:

A disc herniation is rarely life-threatening or dangerous. However, seek medical attention immediately if you experience bladder or bowel dysfunction such as incontinence or have difficulty urinating even with a full bladder. Or, if you experience loss of sensation in the inner thighs, back of legs and the area around the rectum. These could be the symptoms of compression to the cauda equina.

Your chiropractor is trained to recognize the symptoms of DDD, disc bulges, and disc herniation. They can guide you in the treatment and prevention of those conditions. They do this through adjustments, exercises, lifestyle advice, posture improvement and perfection of your lifting technique. Have your spine examined today and get on the path to having healthier intervertebral discs.

To book an appointment, call 613.860.8600 for our Byward location, and 613.237.9000 for our Glebe location.