Intervertebral Disc: Definition and What It Does

Medically and clinically reviewed by Jonathan Lee, MD and Maureen Lu, PT, DPT

Intervertebral Disc Definition and Meaning

An intervertebral disc is a flat, round structure located between two vertebrae in the spine that has a tough outer layer and a gel-like center. Intervertebral discs are present all along the spinal column. The discs function as a cushion, protecting the bones of the spine when you move, bend, and twist.  

Anatomy of an Intervertebral Disc

The anatomy of an intervertebral disc includes two primary parts: the annulus fibrosus and the nucleus pulposus. The annulus fibrosus is the outer layer of the disc; it’s made up of many layers of tough, fibrous cartilage. The nucleus pulposus is the inner layer, composed of a gel-like substance that helps distribute pressure across the disc.

The Function of an Intervertebral Disc

The primary function of intervertebral discs is to act as shock absorbers, cushioning the spine during activities such as walking and running. The discs support the weight of the upper body, evenly distributing it across the spine and preventing excessive stress on any one vertebra. Intervertebral discs also help provide flexibility and mobility to the spine and maintain the spacing between vertebrae. 

Common Conditions Affecting Intervertebral Discs

There are many conditions that can affect intervertebral discs. Among the most common are  herniated discs and degenerative disc disease:

  • A herniated disc occurs when the center of one (or more) of the discs pushes against its outer ring. This can sometimes cause back pain or neck pain as well as associated leg or arm symptoms.

  • Degenerative disc disease is not actually a disease but an umbrella term for age-related changes that can occur with intervertebral discs. Sometimes these disc changes can contribute to persistent pain and changes in back function, but, in many cases, people experience such changes in the spine without any symptoms at all or only brief, episodic symptoms.

Intervertebral Disc Pain: A Hinge Health Perspective

Hearing about changes that occur in the spine, including those involving intervertebral discs, can sound alarming, so it’s natural to be concerned. But remember: The spine is an incredibly strong structure that is responsible for supporting the entire body as well as so many movements that allow you to turn your head, stand up straight, bend, and twist. The spine is very resilient, even to age-related changes that naturally occur to the discs between vertebrae. 

If you’re dealing with pain related to a herniated disc or degenerative disc disease and are reluctant to move because you think you’ll cause more pain or injury, know this: Movement is good for the spine and keeps discs healthy. As our Hinge Health care team says, movement is medicine. You want your spine, along with the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that support it, to remain flexible and mobile to prevent tightness that can lead to more pain. In order to do that, you need to engage in exercises that support and strengthen your spine. You’re not stuck with your pain and there are always steps you can take to get back to doing what you love. 

How Physical Therapy Can Help With Conditions Affecting Intervertebral Discs

Physical therapy is beneficial for many conditions and injuries involving intervertebral discs that contribute to pain. Treatment options often include exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, improve flexibility and posture, and reduce any pressure on the discs. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

How Hinge Health Can Help You 

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you. 

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.


  1. Waxenbaum, J. A., & Futterman, B. (2018). Anatomy, Back, Intervertebral Discs.; StatPearls Publishing. 

  2. Dydyk, A.M., Ngnitewe Massa, R., & Mesfin, F.B. (2023) Disc Herniation. StatPearls.  

  3. Herniated Disc—Symptoms, Causes, Prevention and Treatment. (n.d.). American Association of Neurological Surgeons. Retrieved from 

  4. Degenerative Disc Disease. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from 

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