Herniated Disc - Topic Overview
What is a herniated disc?
(vertebrae) that form the
spine in your back are cushioned by small, spongy
discs. When these discs are healthy, they act as shock absorbers for the spine
and keep the spine flexible. But when a disc is damaged, it may bulge or break
open. This is called a herniated disc. It may also be called a slipped or
See a picture of a
herniated disc .
You can have a herniated
disc in any part of your spine. But most herniated discs affect the lower back
(lumbar spine). Some happen in the neck (cervical spine) and, more rarely, in
the upper back (thoracic spine). This topic focuses mainly on the lower
What causes a herniated disc?
A herniated disc may be caused by:
- Wear and tear of the disc. As you age, your
discs dry out and aren't as flexible.
- Injury to the spine. This may
cause tiny tears or cracks in the hard outer layer of the disc. When this
happens, the gel inside the disc can be forced out through the tears or cracks
in the outer layer of the disc. This causes the disc to bulge, break open, or
break into pieces.
What are the symptoms?
herniated disc presses on
nerve roots, it can cause pain, numbness, and weakness
in the area of the body where the nerve travels. A herniated disc in the lower
back can cause pain and numbness in the buttock and down the leg. This is
called sciatica (say "sy-AT-ih-kuh"). Sciatica is the most
common symptom of a herniated disc in the low back.
herniated disc is not pressing on a nerve, you may have a backache or no pain
If you have weakness or numbness in both legs, along with
loss of bladder or bowel control, seek medical care right away. This could be a
sign of a rare but serious problem called
cauda equina syndrome.
How is a herniated disc diagnosed?
Your doctor may
diagnose a herniated disc by asking questions about your symptoms and examining
you. If your symptoms clearly point to a herniated disc, you may not need
Sometimes a doctor will do tests such as an
MRI or a
CT scan to confirm a herniated disc or rule out other
How is it treated?
Symptoms from a herniated disc
usually get better in a few weeks or months. To help you recover:
- Rest if you have severe pain. Otherwise, stay
active. Staying in bed for more than 1 or 2 days can weaken your muscles and
make the problem worse. Walking and other light activity may help.
- Try using a heating pad on a low or medium setting for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 or 3 hours. Try a warm
shower in place of one session with the heating pad. You can also buy single-use heat wraps that last up to 8 hours. You can also try an ice pack
for 10 to 15 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
- Do the exercises that your
doctor or physical therapist suggests. These will help keep your back muscles
strong and prevent another injury.
- Ask your doctor about medicine
to treat your symptoms. Medicine won't cure a herniated disc, but it may help
with pain and swelling.