- Holding the vertebrae together
- Allowing the spine to flex and move
- Acting as shock absorbers to protect the vertebrae and spinal cord from serious injuries.
Discs have a gel-like center contained by a tougher exterior made from cartilage. A herniated disc occurs when this outside layer tears, rips, or weakens, allowing the inner portion to bulge outward.
When a disc bulges, it can press on the spine’s sensitive nerve roots or the spinal cord. This can cause severe and even permanent damage.
Most herniated discs occur in either the lumbar spine (low back) or cervical (neck and upper back) spine. Thoracic herniations, which are located in the mid-back are relatively rare—but they are possible.
Common Symptoms and Complications
While some people experience no symptoms whatsoever from a herniated disc, others may experience:
- Moderate to severe pain, often in the neck or the lower back, arms, shoulders, buttocks, thighs, and calves. Pain is often concentrated more on one side of the body than the other, although this is not always the case.
- Numbness, tingling, or even muscle weakness. This is due to the herniated disc pressing on sensory and motor nerves. If muscle weakness is present, you may find it difficult to maintain your balance, hold objects, or perform certain tasks.
It’s important to understand that herniated disc symptoms can develop gradually, over periods of weeks or longer. If you have any discomfort in your neck or back, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Sometimes, those “minor aches and pains” are early signs of a more serious injury. (And even if you just have a mild case of whiplash, your doctors can prescribe medications and document your injuries.)
Untreated bulging discs may eventually lead to progressive loss of sensation, bladder dysfunction, bowel dysfunction, or in extreme cases permanent muscle weakness or paralysis.
Callout: If you are experiencing severe pain, bladder or bowel issues, or a drop foot, please seek medical care right away. These symptoms might be signs of a severe injury and you might need emergency surgery to avoid permanent damage.
How Car Crashes Cause Herniated Discs
Discs are designed to absorb impact shocks and protect the sensitive bones and nerves that make up the spine. However, they are not invincible—and years of wear and tear can sometimes make them vulnerable.
During a high-impact event like a car accident, your body endures many forces, including acceleration and deceleration. This trauma can damage your spinal discs, nerves, vertebrae, and the back’s soft tissues.