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 spine). Some happen in the neck (cervical spine) and, more rarely, in the upper back (thoracic spine). This topic focuses mainly on the lower back.
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?
When a 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. Sciatica is the most common symptom of a herniated disc in the low back.
If a herniated disc is not pressing on a nerve, you may have a backache or no pain at all.
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 tests.
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.
Usually a herniated disc will heal on its own over time. About half of people with a herniated disc get better within 1 month, and most are better within 6 months. Only about 1 person in 10 eventually has surgery.
Be patient, and stay with your treatment. If your symptoms don’t get better in a few months, you may want to talk to your doctor about surgery.
Can a herniated disc be prevented?
After you have hurt your back, you are more likely to have back problems in the future. To help keep your back healthy:
- Protect your back when you lift. For example, lift with your legs, not your back. Don’t bend forward at the waist when you lift. Bend your knees and squat.
- Use good posture. When you stand or walk, keep your shoulders back and down, your chin back, and your belly in. This will help support your lower back.
- Get regular exercise.
- Stay at a healthy weight. This may reduce the load on your lower back.
- Don’t smoke. Smoking increases the risk of a disc injury.
Call Us if:
- Leg pain is accompanied by persistent weakness, tingling, or numbness in any part of the leg from the buttock to the ankle or foot.
- New low back pain is accompanied by vomiting and/or fever [101°F (38.33°C) or higher] that lasts longer than 48 hours.
- Leg pain or intermittent weakness, tingling, or numbness persists longer than 1 week despite home treatment.
- You have back pain that either persists or builds in intensity over a few weeks.
- A back injury is work-related and symptoms do not improve in 2 to 3 days.
- Back pain is accompanied by pain during urination or blood in the urine.
- You have back pain that is worse when you are resting than when you are active.
- You notice a gradual increase in problems with bowel or bladder control.