The 4 Stages of Spinal Disc Herniation

Category: Nerves, Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: January 10, 2017

Spinal Disc Herniation Stages

Herniated discs in high profile personalities have been grabbing a lot of headlines of late. We’ve got Tiger Woods trying to come back from a herniated disc procedure, we watched as JJ Watt returned to the NFL too soon after having disc surgery, and now the most recognizable coach in college basketball will be sidelined for about a month after Mike Krzyzewski underwent surgery to remove a free disc fragment that was the result of a herniated disc. So while the injury is fairly common, its doesn’t just happen all at once. There are multiples stages to a full disc herniation, and we explore those stages in today’s blog.

How Does A Herniated Disc Occur?

In between each of our vertebrae are small intervertebral discs that cushion the spine and facilitate movement. The spinal discs can be best imagined by picturing a jelly doughnut, as the discs have nuclear material surrounded by a fibrous wall. However, your discs are much more durable than the walls of a jelly doughnut.

Even though the nucleus of your spinal discs are protected by a thick fibrous wall, those walls can slowly wear down due to age, stress and acute trauma. Over time, your spinal discs will begin to degenerate, and if they become too damaged, the disc can rupture and herniate.

Disc Herniation Stages

Here’s a look at the four stages of degeneration a disc will go through as it becomes a herniated disc.

  • Stage 1 – Disc Degeneration – Chemical changes, years of physical labor or acute or chronic stress cause the outer disc layer to weaken, but the nucleus remains encased in the fibrous outer layer.
  • Stage 2 – Prolapsed Disc – The inner disc pushes further into the outer layer of the disc, giving it a prolapsed appearance. This is also considered a bulging disc. The inner nuclear material has still not broken through the fibrous wall, but the bulge itself may compress nearby nerves or other spinal structures.
  • Stage 3 – Extrusion – The gel-like nucleus eventually breaks through the outer wall. Even though it breaks through, the nucleus remains within the disc.
  • Stage 4 – Sequestration – The nucleus breaks through the outer wall and eventually spills out of the spinal disc into the spinal canal. The chemical components of the nucleus material can cause nerve inflammation, irritation or pain.

If caught in the earlier stages, with the aid of a treatment plan from a spinal specialist, the vast majority of herniated discs will heal on their own. However, if your disc problems continue to get worse, surgery may be needed to achieve the most pain relief.

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