A herniated disk is also known as a slipped, ruptured or bulging disk. It’s one of the most common causes of neck, back and leg pain. Most of the time, herniated disks heal on their own or with simple home-care measures.
A herniated disk is an injury of the spine (backbone). You have a series of bones (vertebrae) in your spine, stretching from the base of your skull to your tailbone. Between your vertebrae are round cushions called disks. The disks act as buffers between your bones, allowing you to bend and move with ease. When one of these disks tears or leaks, it’s called a herniated disk.
Every year, up to 2% of people get a herniated disk. Herniated disks are a leading cause of neck and/or arm, and back and/or leg pain (sciatica). They can happen anywhere along the spine, but herniated disks most often occur in the lower back or the neck. It’s rare for a herniated disk to be in the mid-back.
People ages 30 to 50 are most likely to get a herniated disk. The problem affects men twice as often as women. Other risk factors include:
Disks have soft, gel-like centers and a firmer outer layer, like a jelly doughnut. With time, the outer layer weakens and can crack. A herniated disk happens when the inner “jelly” substance pushes through the crack. The leaked material may press on nearby spinal nerves.
Several factors can contribute to a disk rupture, including:
Herniated disk symptoms vary depending on where the problem is in your spine. Symptoms worsen with movement and get better with rest.
It’s common for a herniated disk in the lower back to cause “sciatic nerve” pain. This sharp pain usually shoots down one side of your buttocks into your leg and sometimes the foot. Other symptoms of a herniated disk in your lower back include:
Symptoms of a herniated disk in your neck include:
Your healthcare provider will do a thorough exam. During the physical, your provider will assess your pain, muscle reflexes, sensation and muscle strength. Your provider may also order tests such as:
In most cases, pain from a herniated disk can go away in time. To ease pain while your disk heals, you can:
Initially, you can treat herniated disk pain at home. But you should see your doctor if:
You may need more advanced treatments if your symptoms aren't getting better. Your healthcare provider might recommend:
Herniated disks get better on their own over time or with nonsurgical treatment for 9 out of 10 people. If other treatments don’t relieve your symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. There are multiple surgical techniques for relieving pressure on the spinal cord and nerves, including:
It's not always possible to prevent a herniated disk. But you can reduce your risk by:
For up to 90% of people, herniated disk pain gets better on its own or with simple medical care. You’ll probably feel better within a month. If you don’t, you should see your healthcare provider. Some people need more aggressive medical measures, such as spinal injections or surgery.
An untreated herniated disk can get worse. That’s especially true if you continue the activities that caused it — for instance, if it developed because of your work. A worsening ruptured disk may cause chronic (ongoing) pain and loss of control or sensation in the affected area. See your healthcare provider if you still have symptoms after four to six weeks of conservative care.
What should I ask my doctor?
Questions to ask your doctor include:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Having a herniated disk can make you reluctant to move. But don’t head to bed — too little movement can make pain worse when you get up again because muscles stiffen. Try to stay active and follow your healthcare provider’s recommendations for stretching. Gentle movement coupled with an over-the-counter pain reliever helps most people feel better in a few weeks.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/01/2021.
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