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Herniated disc

What is a herniated disc?

The bones (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 ruptured disc.

You can have a herniated disc in any part of your spine. But most herniated discs affect the lower back (lumbar herniated disc). Some happen in the neck (cervical herniated disc). Less often, they can be in the upper back (thoracic herniated disc).

  • Diagnosis

    Herniated Disc

    Picture of a herniated disc (side view)

    The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine (backbone) are cushioned by small, round, flat discs. When these discs are damaged from an injury, normal wear and tear, or disease, they may bulge abnormally or break open. This is called a herniated or slipped disc.

    How is a herniated disc diagnosed?

    To find out if you have a herniated disc, your doctor will ask you questions about your symptoms and do an exam. If this suggests that you have a herniated disc, you probably won't need other tests. But if your doctor needs more information, you may have an MRI or a CT scan. Your doctor may order one of these if:

    • Your medical history and physical exam suggest a more serious condition (such as a tumor, an infection, or severe nerve damage).
    • Your leg pain and other symptoms don't get better after 6 weeks of nonsurgical treatment.

    Other tests

    Other tests, such as blood tests, may be done to rule out other conditions.

    The following tests aren't used as often as an MRI or a CT scan, but they may give your doctor more information:

    • An electromyogram and nerve conduction test.
    • A myelogram.
    • A nerve block.
  • Causes

    What causes a herniated disc?

    Wear and tear, also called disc degeneration, is the usual cause of a herniated disc. As we age, the discs in our spine lose some of the fluid that helps them stay flexible. The outer layer of the discs can form tiny tears or cracks. The thick gel inside the disc may be forced out through those cracks and cause the disc to bulge or break open.

    A herniated disc can occur from:

    • A sudden, heavy strain or increased pressure to the lower back. Sometimes a sudden twisting movement or even a sneeze will force some of the material out.
    • Activities that are done over and over again that may stress the lower back. Examples include poor lifting habits, being exposed to vibration for a long time, and sports-related injuries.
  • Care

    Home Treatment for Herniated Disc Pain

  • Treatment

    Herniated disc: Overview

    The bones that form the spine in your back are cushioned by small discs. If a disc is damaged, it may bulge or break open (herniate). A herniated disc can result from normal wear and tear as we age or from an injury or disease. If a herniated disc irritates or presses on a nerve, it can cause pain and numbness in your leg (sciatica) and/or back pain.

    You may be able to heal your herniated disc with a few weeks or months of rest, medicine, and exercises. In some cases, you may need surgery.

    Back Surgery for Herniated Disc

  • When to call

    Herniated disc: When to call

    Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

    • You are unable to move a leg at all.

    Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

    • You have new or worse symptoms in your arms, legs, chest, belly, or buttocks. Symptoms may include:
      • Numbness or tingling.
      • Weakness.
      • Pain.
    • You lose bladder or bowel control.

    Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

    • You are not getting better as expected.

    Copyrighted material adapted with permission from Healthwise, Incorporated. This information does not replace the advice of a doctor.