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An intervertebral disc has two main parts: an outer shell of fibrous cartilage (the annulus fibrosis) and an inner filling of a jelly-like material (the nucleus pulposus). The outer wall of an intervertebral disc can become weakened for a variety of reasons. As people age, the fibrous material becomes more brittle. Excessive strain can rupture the annulus fibrosis. Poor diet and exercise habits can also weaken the disc.
Regardless of the cause, once the tough shell of the disc is weakened or cracked, the soft gel of the nucleus pulposus can deform the disc. Once deformation occurs, the disc may irritate or pinch one or more spinal nerves, causing pain.