What is a herniated disk?

The spine, or backbone, is made up of a series of individual bones called vertebrae that are stacked to form the spinal column. Between the vertebrae are flat, round cushioning pads called intervertebral disks, which act as shock absorbers. Each disk has a soft, gel-like center — called the nucleus pulposus — surrounded by a tough, fibrous outer layer called the annulus.

A herniated disk — also called a slipped disk or ruptured disk — occurs when pressure from the vertebrae above and below force some or all of the nucleus pulposus through a weakened or torn part of the annulus. The herniated nucleus pulposus can press on the nerves near the disk, resulting in pain.

Herniated disks most frequently occur in the lower part of the spine; however they can also occur in the cervical and thoracic spine. A herniated disk is one of the most common causes of neck, back and/or leg pain (sciatica) and neckache

How common are herniated disks?

Herniated disks are very common. They occur more often in people aged 35 to 55 years. They are more common in men than in women.

What are the symptoms of a herniated disk?

Herniated disks often produce no symptoms at all. Symptoms of a herniated disk in the lower back include:

  • Pain that radiates to the buttocks, legs and feet — called sciatica (Back pain might or might not be present, as well).
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs or feet.
  • Muscle weakness.

Symptoms of a herniated disk in the neck include:

  • Pain near or over the shoulder blade.
  • Pain that radiates to the shoulder, arm, and — sometimes — the hand and fingers.
  • Neck pain, especially in the back and on the sides of the neck (The pain might increase when bending or turning the neck).
  • Spasm of the neck muscles.

Symptoms of a herniated disk in the mid-back tend to be vague. There might be pain in the upper back, lower back, abdomen, or legs, as well as weakness or numbness in one or both legs.

What causes a herniated disk?

A herniation occurs when the outer part of the disk, the annulus, becomes weak and tears. Several factors can contribute to disk-weakening, including

  • Aging and degeneration.
  • Excessive weight.
  • A sudden strain from improper lifting or from twisting violently.

What complications are associated with a herniated disk?

Chronic (ongoing) back or leg pain and loss of control or sensation in the legs or feet are some complications of an untreated disk herniation.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 07/22/2014.


  • North American Spine Society. Herniated Cervical Disc. Accessed 2/18/2020.
  • North American Spine Society. Herniated Lumbar Disc. Accessed 2/18/2020.
  • American Academy of Family Physicians. Herniated Disc. Accessed 2/18/2020.
  • Frohna WJ, Della-Giustina D. Chapter 276. Neck and Back Pain. In: Tintinalli JE, Stapczynski J, Ma O, Cline DM, Cydulka RK, Meckler GD, T. eds. Tintinalli's Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide, 7e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2011. library.ccf.org Accessed 8/18/2014.

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