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Lumbar Herniated Disc - What Happens

Due to age, injury, or both, the outer layer of a spinal disc may dry out and form tiny cracks. Sometimes this causes a:

  • Bulging disc. Some of the thick gel in the disc may leak into the cracks. The disc may begin to bulge out from between the bones of the spine (vertebrae).
  • Ruptured disc. The gel breaks through the capsule.
  • Free fragment. Fragments of a ruptured disc may break completely free of the disc and lodge in the spinal canal camera.gif.

Any of these stages can cause pressure on a nerve root and symptoms of pain and numbness.

The cracks in the disc don't repair themselves, but the pain usually fades over time. Often the body reabsorbs the material from the disc, which helps the pain go away. This process is called resorption. About half of the people with herniated discs in the low back recover within 1 month. And within 6 months, most recover.1

Long-term problems

It's important to see your doctor if you've had constant or increasing pain for more than 4 to 6 weeks. Getting help early on can lower your chance of having lasting problems, such as the following:

  • Pain may come and go. Pain-free periods happen less and less.
  • Long-lasting (chronic) and recurring pain can develop because of continued tissue irritation caused by the disc pressing on a nerve.
  • Chronic pain syndrome can result from having ongoing pain, causing depression, anxiety, and trouble coping with daily life.
  • Symptoms caused by long-term nerve root compression include loss of agility, strength, or sensation in one or both legs and feet.

    This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http:// cancer .gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.

    WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

    Last Updated: January 21, 2014
    This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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