What Is Herniated Disk?


A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, is a condition that affects the spine. The spine is made up of a series of bones called vertebrae, and between each pair of vertebrae, there are cushion like discs that act as shock absorbers. These discs have a tough outer layer and a gel-like inner core.

When a disc herniation occurs, the outer layer of the disc weakens or tears, allowing the inner core to protrude or leak out. This can happen due to age-related degeneration, trauma, or repetitive stress on the spine. The herniated disc can then press against nearby nerves, causing pain, numbness, or weakness in the area of the body supplied by those nerves.

The most common location for a herniated disc is in the lower back (lumbar spine) or the neck (cervical spine). Symptoms can vary depending on the location and severity of the herniation but may include pain or discomfort in the back or neck, radiating pain down the arms or legs, muscle weakness, and changes in sensation.

Diagnosis of a herniated disc typically involves a physical examination, medical history review, and diagnostic imaging tests such as X-rays, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), or CT (computed tomography) scans. Treatment options range from conservative approaches to surgical interventions.

Conservative treatments may include rest, physical therapy, pain medications, and anti-inflammatory drugs. In some cases, epidural steroid injections may be administered to reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms. If conservative methods do not provide sufficient relief or if there is significant nerve compression, surgery may be considered. Surgical options can include discectomy, where the herniated portion of the disc is removed, or spinal fusion, where two or more vertebrae are fused together to provide stability.

It's important to note that while a herniated disc can cause significant pain and discomfort, many cases can improve with time and appropriate treatment. It is advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate management of a herniated disc.

Causes of herniated disk

Discs contain a significant amount of water in youngsters and adults of all ages. The water content of the discs diminishes with aging, making the discs less flexible. The gaps within the vertebrae get smaller and the discs start to shrink. The discs become more vulnerable to herniation as a result of natural aging.1

Here are some common causes of a herniated disc:

  • Age-related degeneration: As we age, the spinal discs naturally lose water content and become less flexible, making them more prone to herniation
  • Trauma or injury: Sudden, forceful impacts to the spine, such as from a fall or car accident, can cause a disc to herniate
  • Improper lifting techniques: Lifting heavy objects using the back instead of the legs can place excessive stress on the spinal discs, leading to herniation
  • Repetitive strain: Engaging in activities that involve repetitive movements or prolonged bending, such as heavy lifting, twisting, or sitting for long periods, can contribute to disc herniation
  • Poor posture: Maintaining poor posture over time can put uneven pressure on the spinal discs, increasing the risk of herniation
  • Genetics: Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition to developing herniated discs.
  • Smoking: Smoking has been associated with increased disc degeneration and a higher risk of herniation
  • Obesity: Excess weight places added stress on the spine, increasing the likelihood of disc herniation.
  • Weakening of spinal structures: Conditions like osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis, or spinal tumors can weaken the spinal structures, making them more susceptible to herniation
  • Unknown factors: In some cases, the exact cause of a herniated disc may not be clearly identifiable

It's important to note that while these factors can contribute to the development of a herniated disc, not everyone with these risk factors will necessarily experience disc herniation. Each individual's situation is unique, and it's advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for a comprehensive evaluation and appropriate guidance.

Signs and symptoms of herniated disk

  • Pain: The most common symptom is localized pain at the site of the herniated disc, which may be sharp, dull, or throbbing. The pain can radiate to the arms or legs if the herniation affects the spinal nerves
  • Numbness or tingling: The herniated disc may compress nearby nerves, leading to sensations of numbness, tingling, or a pins-and-needles feeling in the affected area
  • Muscle weakness: If the nerves controlling muscle function are affected, it can result in weakness in specific muscles or difficulty with coordination and fine motor skills
  • Changes in reflexes: Reflexes may be diminished or exaggerated in the areas controlled by the affected nerves
  • Radiating pain: The pain may travel along the path of the affected nerve, causing pain or discomfort in the arms, legs, or buttocks. For example, a herniated disc in the lower back can lead to sciatica, characterized by pain radiating down the leg2
  • Worsening pain with certain activities: Pain may intensify with movements that place stress on the spine, such as bending, lifting, or twisting
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (in severe cases): Rarely, a large herniation can compress the nerves that control bowel and bladder function, leading to difficulty in controlling urination or bowel movements. This condition is called cauda equina syndrome that requires instant medical attentiveness3

Management and treatment for herniated disk

  • Rest: Initially, rest is recommended to allow the herniated disc to heal and reduce inflammation. Avoid activities that worsen the pain or put strain on the back
  • Pain medication: Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce pain and inflammation. Prescription medications, including muscle relaxants or stronger painkillers, may be prescribed for severe pain
  • Physical therapy: A physical therapist can provide exercises and stretches to improve flexibility, strengthen the back and core muscles, and alleviate pressure on the herniated disc. They may also use techniques like traction or manual therapy
  • Epidural steroid injections: In some cases, corticosteroid injections may be administered directly into the space around the spinal nerves to reduce inflammation and relieve pain4 
  • Heat and cold therapy: Applying ice packs or cold compresses in the initial stages can help reduce swelling, while later, heat therapy with hot packs or warm baths/showers can relax muscles and improve blood flow
  • Lifestyle modifications: Maintaining good posture, using proper body mechanics when lifting or bending, and avoiding prolonged sitting or standing can help prevent further injury and alleviate symptoms
  • Weight management: Excess weight can strain the spine, so maintaining a healthy weight can reduce the load on the discs and relieve pressure
  • Alternative therapies: Techniques like acupuncture, chiropractic manipulation, or transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) may provide temporary relief for some individuals, but their effectiveness can vary
  • Surgical intervention: If conservative measures fail to provide relief or if the condition worsens significantly, surgery may be considered. Common surgical options include discectomy (removal of the herniated portion of the disc) or spinal fusion5


Physical examination: The doctor will perform a physical examination to assess your range of motion, muscle strength, reflexes, and sensation. They may also perform specific tests, such as the straight leg raise test, to check for signs of nerve compression.

Imaging tests:

  • X-rays: Although they don't directly show herniated discs, X-rays can help rule out other causes of back pain, such as fractures or abnormalities in the spine's alignment
  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): This is the most common imaging test used to diagnose a herniated disc. It provides detailed images of the spine, allowing the doctor to visualize the herniated disc, the degree of disc herniation, and its impact on surrounding structures
  • CT scan (Computed Tomography): This may be used if an MRI is not feasible or if additional information is needed. It provides detailed cross-sectional images of the spine
  • Nerve tests (electrodiagnostic tests): In some cases, electromyography (EMG) or nerve conduction studies (NCS) may be performed to assess nerve function and identify the specific nerves affected by the herniated disc

Risk factors

  • Risk factors can be from the following
  • Age plays a vital role as the discs in the spine tend to degenerate and become less flexible over time
  • Obesity puts extra strain on the spinal discs, increasing the likelihood of disc herniation
  • Genetic predisposition can contribute to the structural integrity of the discs, making some individuals more susceptible
  • Smoking reduces oxygen supply to the spinal tissues, impairing their ability to heal and increasing the risk of disc degeneration
  • Occupations that involve heavy lifting, repetitive movements, or prolonged sitting or standing can place excessive pressure on the spine, making it more vulnerable to herniation
  • Trauma events such as accidents or injuries that involve sudden and forceful impacts to the spine can cause herniated discs


The condition known as "sciatica" can result from a herniated lumbar disc that is pressing on the spine's nerves and causing a feeling of pain, tingling, or weakening in the leg. About 1-2% of the population suffers with sciatica, most commonly around the ages of thirty and fifty.6

The emergence of long-term backache is one of the side effects of a herniated disc. Furthermore, significant nerve root compression from untreated disc herniations, though rare, can cause permanent nerve injury. Although fatalities and paralysis from serious complications of surgical or interventional therapies are uncommon, occurrences of both have been documented in the literature.


How can I prevent herniated disk

Maintain a healthy weight, practice good posture, exercise regularly, use proper lifting techniques, and avoid excessive strain on the spine to help prevent herniated discs.

How common is herniated disk

Herniated discs are relatively common, with prevalence rates estimated to be around 1-3% in the general population.

When should I see a doctor

You should consider seeing a doctor for a herniated disc if you experience severe or worsening back or neck pain, weakness or numbness in your arms or legs, difficulty controlling bladder or bowel function, or if your symptoms persist for several weeks despite conservative treatment.


A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when the outer layer of a spinal disc weakens or tears, allowing the inner core to protrude and compress nearby nerves. Risk factors include age, obesity, genetics, smoking, physically demanding occupations, and trauma. Symptoms can vary but may include localized or radiating pain, numbness or tingling, muscle weakness, and changes in reflexes. Diagnosis involves physical examination and imaging tests. Treatment options range from conservative measures such as rest, medication, and physical therapy to surgery in severe cases. To prevent herniated discs, maintain a healthy weight, practice good posture, exercise regularly, use proper lifting techniques, and avoid excessive strain on the spine. If symptoms are severe or persistent, it is advisable to see a doctor for evaluation.


  1. Herniated disk in the lower back - orthoinfo - aaos [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 18]. Available from: https://www.orthoinfo.org/en/diseases--conditions/herniated-disk-in-the-lower-back/
  2. Koes BW, van Tulder MW, Peul WC. Diagnosis and treatment of sciatica. BMJ [Internet]. 2007 Jun 23 [cited 2023 Jul 18];334(7607):1313–7. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1895638/
  3. Bednar DA. Cauda equina syndrome from lumbar disc herniation. CMAJ [Internet]. 2016 Mar 1 [cited 2023 Jul 18];188(4):284. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4771539/
  4. Chou R, Hashimoto R, Friedly J, Fu R, Bougatsos C, Dana T, et al. Epidural corticosteroid injections for radiculopathy and spinal stenosis: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med [Internet]. 2015 Sep 1 [cited 2023 Jul 18];163(5):373–81. Available from: https://doi.org/10.7326/M15-0934
  5. Europe pmc [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 18]. Available from: https://europepmc.org/article/MED/19363457
  6. Herniated lumbar disc [Internet]. [cited 2023 Jul 18]. Available from: https://www.spine.org/KnowYourBack/Conditions/Degenerative-Conditions/Herniated-Lumbar-Disc
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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