Low Back Disc Disease and Herniated Discs

Peer Reviewed

A shooting, stabbing pain that shoots from your back or buttocks into your leg is called sciatica or radiculopathy. It can be associated with numbness or weakness of your leg and foot. The most frequent cause of this condition is a ruptured disc (also called a herniated disc or bulging disc) in the lower back. In this article, we review disc problems of the lower back, also known as lumbar disc disease.

fissure herniated disc msd

Anatomy of the Lower Back:

To Help You Understand Your Herniated Disc in Your Low Back

The lumbar spine is made up of the last 5 vertebrae of the spine. The vertebrae are the bones of the spine. Their function is to provide support and protection to the spinal cord.

The facet joints allow the vertebrae to be linked. They provide mobile connections between each vertebra.

An intervertebral disc sits between each individual vertebra. The annulus fibrosus is the outer ring and is the strongest part of the disc. It is responsible for connecting the vertebrae. The nucleus pulposus is the soft, inner portion. This material is about the consistency of crabmeat and is responsible for the shock absorption properties of the spine.

The nerve roots of the spine carry signals between the lower extremities and the brain that allow us to move our legs (motor function) and perceive sensations such as touch, temperature, and pain (sensory function). 

To better understand how the parts of the spine affect each other, we sometimes focus on a spinal segment. A spinal segment is composed of two vertebra, the intervertebral disc between, and the two nerve roots that exit from that spinal level, one from each side.

The intervertebral discs have cartilaginous endplates at the top and bottom and are surrounded by the annulus. Through degeneration or injury, the fibrous tissue (annulus fibrosus) constraining the soft disc material (nucleus pulposus) may tear. This may result in bulging (protrusion) of the disc or even extrusion of disc material into the spinal canal or neural foramen. This condition has been called herniated disc, ruptured disc, herniated nucleus pulposus, or prolapsed disc.

Lumbar (Lower Back) Herniated Discs

One of the more common problems of the lumbar spine is a herniated disc. In this condition, a tear in an annulus fibrosus allows the nucleus pulposus to squeeze into the spinal canal. If a nerve root is compressed by the disc material, there can be pain, numbness, and weakness in the areas supplied by the nerve (often down the back of a leg). It is not unusual for the back itself to be painless, or nearly so. Accordingly, a herniated lumbar disc characteristically produces buttock and leg pain but not back pain per se. This pain is termed radiculopathy or sciatica.

mri sagittal herniated disc small

If sensory function of the impinged nerve root is impaired, numbness will result. The exact area of numbness is determined by the particular root, and may be in the big toe, the heel, the outer ankle, the outer leg, or a combination of these.

Impairment of motor function of the root will cause weakness, which, again, depends on the particular root.

 Disc Level  Root Comp.  Weakness  Reflex Involvement  Sensory Loss  Pain Distribution
 L3-L4  L4  quadriceps, tibialis anterior  knee jerk medial knee and shin  anterior thigh
 L4-L5  L5  extension of big toe  no significant  big toe  back of thigh, lateral calf
L5-S1  S1  gastrocnemius (ankle plantar flexion)  Achilles  lateral foot and heel  back of thigh and calf

In low back herniated discs, the L5-S1 intervertebral disc is involved 45% to 50% of the time, L4-L5 40% to 45%, and L3-L4 about 5%. Disc herniation at the other lumbar levels is rare.

The nerve root that is being compressed is the one exiting the level below the disc in the vast majority of cases.

However, if the herniation is lateral (on the side of the intervertebral disc, as opposed to a central disc herniation in the center of the disc), then the root compressed will be the one exiting above. This is known as a far lateral disc herniation and occurs in about 3% to 10% of cases.

It is also important to note that while the signs outlined in Table 1 (see above) are helpful in the diagnosis and decision making regarding type of treatment, not all of the signs and symptoms associated with a root may be present in an individual, and multiple root signs may even be present.

Updated on: 02/23/17
Continue Reading
Symptoms of a Herniated Disc
Iain Kalfas, MD
Continue Reading:

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Learn about herniated disc symptoms, which can include pain, weakness, tingling, and sciatica (leg pain).
Read More