When back pain is caused by a spinal disc problem, the source of the pain is either from a nerve being irritated by a protruding disc, or it is from the disc space itself. Differentiating between the two can cause confusion among patients, as doctors may use different terms to identify the source of pain. Let’s break down the two sources of pain as coming from either a pinched nerve or a degenerated disc.
This type of pain occurs when the disc itself is leaking into the nerve root space. In other words, it’s not the disc that hurts—it’s the nerve being intruded upon by the disc. The pain from the nerve can be transferred to other parts of the body.
This type of pain is called radiculopathy. When radiculopathy occurs in the lower spine, it is often referred to as sciatica.
Pinched nerves can be caused by:
- — Spinal stenosis
- — Bone spurs that occur as a result of osteoarthritis.
Degenerative disc disease describes the pain and numbness or weakness a patient may feel as a result of an unhealthy disc. In this case, the pain originates from the disc itself. The pain is caused by the following:
- Inflammation. The proteins released into the disc space as the disc degenerates can cause inflammation. Inflammation usually causes pain. This pain can radiate into the arms or leg, and is referred to as sciatica or radiculopathy.
- Abnormal micromotion instability. If the outer rings of the vertebral disc, known as the annulus, break down, they will not be as effective in resisting the motion in the spine. This abnormal motion could cause pain. As the body attempts to counteract inflammation and abnormal micromotion instability, muscles in the area may spasm, which can cause the sharp, shooting pains typical of a degenerated disc.
To make things even more confusing, these types of spinal conditions may be asymptomatic. Even though they may show up on an MRI, they may not necessarily be the source of your pain.
Source: www.spine-health.com; Allison Walsh; October 13, 2014.