The backbone is a series of small vertebral bones that surround the spinal cord tissue. Each vertebra is separated from the neighboring vertebra by a gelatinous cushion called an intervertebral disc. These discs can be thought of as shock absorbers that prevent contact between the vertebrae. When these disks are injured, through trauma, age, or disc disease, they can bulge or even rupture. When the gelatinous substance inside the disk seeps out of the confines of the disk it is called a ruptured or extruded disc.
The least severe form of disc abnormality is a bulging disc, which simply is a disk that has expanded in circumference or is pushing against the walls of the disk. It does not leak disc material, but can push against the spine and surrounding nerves. A herniated disk is where the disc material forms a protrusion, but does not break through the confines of the disk. The most serious form of deformed disc is the extruded disc. A jelly-like fluid seeps out of the ruptured disc, and can press against the surrounding spine and tissues, flattening the disk. This flattening means that the vertebral bones can rub against each other.
Most extruded discs occur in the lower or lumbar spine. Less likely is a rupture in the cervical spine or neck. It rarely occurs in the upper back. Symptoms of this condition include grating of the bones of the spine; pain in the neck, back, or leg; and weakness or numbness in the extremities. Often the symptoms will point to an extruded disc without the need for further tests. If the extrusion is not pressing against any nerves, there may be few symptoms, and the doctor may require an MRI or CT scan for a definitive diagnosis.
In most cases, an extruded disc will heal in a few weeks with little or no treatment. Avoid strenuous activity and lifting. Heating pads, ice packs, and pain killers can help with the pain. Bed rest for longer than a couple of days is not recommended, as the back muscles can atrophy and won't provide the support the backbone needs. The doctor will likely recommend some light back exercises to strengthen the muscles along the back and retain flexibility.
Very severe cases of disk extrusion may require surgical repair. This typically requires removing the disc material to reduce the pressure on surrounding tissues. Unfortunately, those who suffer an extruded disc will be more prone to future disc and back problems.