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Spinal Disc issues seen on MRI's don't always cause pain!

Did you know that disc bulges and other problems seen on your MRI are sometimes not the cause of your pain?

At Canberra Spine Centre, we often see patients bring in their scans showing damage.

For some of those people, this is not the cause of their pain, and we need to look elsewhere to solve their problem.

In this article, you’ll learn about discs and disc problems as well as how to manage and prevent them.

What is a Disc?

An intervertebral disc is the spongy cushion that separates your vertebrae (bones of the spine).

With the exception of the first two vertebrae of your neck, there is a disc that sits between every bone of our spine.

The main role of the disc is to provide shock absorption and to distribution loads on the spine.

It also allows for movement and flexibility between your vertebrae, providing pivot points that allow fluid movement of your spine.

What is a disc bulge?

Have you ever heard of a slipped disc? This is a phrase we hear often as chiropractors at the Canberra Spine Centre.

Although this is a popular phrase, the disc does not really ‘slip’ or ‘go out of place’, and as such is an inaccurate term.

What ‘slipped disc’ is really referring to is a disc injury such as a bulge, rupture or herniation.

Your discs are made up of the annulus fibrosus (the tough outer layer) and the nucleus pulposus (which contains a soft, gelatine-like centre).

When fissures or tears occur in the outer layer of the disc, the material inside of the disc can begin to bulge outward.

Numerous factors can cause a disc to herniate. Usually, it is related to poor motion over long periods of time causing uneven loads on the disc, eventually causing damage and rupture.


The prevalence of disc bulges in asymptomatic (pain or symptom free) patients ranges from 37% in young adults aged 20 years, up to 75% in adults ages 65 years and 96% of adults aged over 80 years.

A bulging disc may not be the cause of your pain for two main reasons.

Firstly, the severity of the injury may not be enough to trigger pain. Pain tends to be registered in the conscious brain when the an injury or problem becomes too much to deal with – something needs to change.

Another thing the brain does with chronic damage – such as that seen in long-term disc damage – is to adapt and ‘tune out’ the noise or signal. In this way, damage may continue, but there is no pain.

As chiropractors at the Canberra Spine Centre, we are careful not to assume that a disc bulge is the root cause of your pain.

That is the reason we always take a detailed history and perform thorough physical examination, including screening orthopaedic, neurologic and chiropractic tests, as well as other required imaging.

This helps us to identify when your disc injury is causing pain, and if there are other causes.

How do I know if a disc bulge is causing my pain?

When severe, a disc bulge, herniation or rupture can cause a patient to have symptoms and pain.

Most commonly when a disc injury is severe it can create irritation of surrounding nerves through pressure and inflammation.

A severe disc injury can create a variety of symptoms, including moderate to severe pain, tingling, numbness, muscle weakness and more.

Very severe lower back disc injuries can cause loss of bowel and bladder control. This is a medical emergency and requires urgent medical attention.

Getting a proper diagnosis of your disc problem is important. It will help you get the right treatment and hopefully prevent further damage. Chiropractors are experts in diagnosis and management of spine-related conditions.

How can I prevent a disc injury?

It is not always possible to prevent a disc injury from occurring, however you can mitigate and reduce your risk of injury by:

  • Using proper lifting techniques
  • Practicing good posture – work, lifestyle, sleeping, driving positions etc
  • Exercising regularly
  • Using a sit/stand desk
  • Stretching
  • Eating healthily and drinking water to stay hydrated
  • Staying within a healthy weight range
  • Stop smoking (smoking has been shown to weaken disc’s)
  • Looking after your spinal health and seeing your chiropractor

Chiropractic treatment and discs

It’s a misconception that chiropractors “pop a disc back in place” using adjustments.

However, Chiropractic care may help with disc injuries and symptoms.

Following a thorough history and examination your chiropractor will develop a treatment plan that may include spinal manipulation or adjustments, low force techniques such as blocking or use of the Activator (instrument adjusting), muscle release techniques and a rehab/strength plan.

At the Canberra Spine Centre we may also use decompression therapy for more difficult cases. (Add link to a decompression article or info)

Chiropractic treatment is aimed at restoring proper motion between vertebrae.

This helps injured discs to heal in a few ways:

  • Better motion helps discs absorb nutrients and dispel waste products with a sponge-like action.
  • More even load bearing helps spread the load better to enable healing
  • Improved body position sense helps your muscles and joints work correctly – improving joint health and preventing injury

For more information on disc injuries or to book a consultation please call us on (02) 6257 9400.

If you would like some more information about the spine and nervous system and how it relates to your health, please check out the other articles on our Facebook page or go to our website: