(Also Called 'Ruptured Disk', 'Slipped Disk')
What is a herniated disc?
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
discs, which act as shock absorbers. Each disc has a soft, gel-like center —
called the nucleus pulposus — surrounded by a tough, fibrous outer layer called the annulus.
A herniated disc — also called a slipped disc or ruptured disc — 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 disc,
resulting in pain.
Herniated discs most frequently occur in the lower
part of the spine; however they can also occur in the cervical and thoracic
spine. A herniated disc is one of the most common causes of neck, back and/or
leg pain (sciatica) and neckache.
What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?
Herniated discs often produce no symptoms at all.
Symptoms of a herniated disc in the low 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 disc 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 disc 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 disc?
A herniation occurs when the outer part of the disc,
the annulus, becomes weak and tears. Several factors can contribute to
- Aging and degeneration
- Excessive weight
- A sudden strain from improper lifting or from twisting violently
How common are herniated discs?
Herniated discs are very common. They occur more often
in people aged 35 to 55 years. They are more common in men than in women.
How is a herniated disc diagnosed?
Your health care provider will begin an evaluation
with a complete physical examination and medical history, including a review of
your symptoms. He or she might perform a neurological exam to test your muscle
reflexes, sensation, and muscle strength.
The health care provider might use certain other
diagnostic tests to confirm the diagnosis and to better evaluate the site and
extent of the herniation. These tests might include:
- X-ray — X-rays use small doses of radiation to produce images of the
body. An X-ray of the spine might be done to rule out other causes of the
back or neck pain.
- MRI or CT scan — Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computed
tomography (CT) scans can show narrowing of the spinal canal caused by a herniation.
- Myelogram — This is an injection of dye into the spinal canal
followed by a CT scan. A myelogram can help pinpoint the size and location
of the herniation.
- EMG — An electromyelogram (EMG) involves placing small needles into
various muscles and measuring electrical activity. The muscle's response,
which indicates the degree of nerve activity, is measured. An EMG can help
determine which nerve root or roots are being affected by the disk herniation.
How is a herniated disc treated?
Most herniated discs resolve on their own or with
conservative treatment, which includes rest, anti-inflammatories, and physical
therapy. Some people find that ice packs or moist heat applied to the affected
area provides some symptomatic relief of the pain and muscle spasms in the back.
In cases that do not improve with conservative treatment, spinal injections or
surgery might be needed.
Common over-the-counter NSAIDs include
aspirin, ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®
and naproxen (Naprosyn®, Aleve®).
You may take medicines with food to avoid stomach irritation.
Muscle relaxants and various analgesics might
be prescribed to relieve the discomfort associated with severe pain or
muscle spasms in the initial treatment periods.
- Physical therapy — The goal of physical therapy is to
improve core strength, flexibility and endurance to enable you to engage in
your normal activities.
The exercises prescribed by your physical therapist can also help
relieve pressure on your nerves, reducing the symptoms of pain and
weakness. The exercise program often includes stretching exercises to
improve flexibility of tight muscles and aerobic exercise — such as
walking or using a stationary bike — to build endurance and improve
Other exercises might help to strengthen the muscles of your back,
abdomen, and legs.
- Spinal injections — An injection of a cortisone-like medicine into
the lower back might help reduce swelling and inflammation of the nerve
roots, allowing for increased mobility. These injections are referred to as
epidurals or nerve blocks.
- Surgery — Surgery might be needed for people who do not respond to
conservative treatment, whose symptoms get progressively worse, or who
experience progressive neurologic decline. Rarely, a large disc herniation
might injure nerves to the bladder or bowel, which requires emergency
surgery. The most common surgical options include microdiscectomy,
laminectomy, or foraminotomy.
- Microdiscectomy — Microdiscectomy is a procedure used to remove
fragments of a herniated disc, often using an operating microscope.
- Laminectomy — The part of the bone that curves around and covers
the spinal cord (lamina) and the tissue that is causing pressure on the
nerve or spinal cord are removed. This procedure is performed under
general anesthesia. The hospital stay is one to two days. Complete
recovery takes about six weeks.
What complications are associated with a herniated disc?
Chronic (ongoing) back or leg pain and loss of control or sensation in the legs or feet are
some complications of an untreated disc herniation.
What is the outlook for people with herniated discs?
Most back and leg pain will get better gradually — usually within six weeks — by taking
simple measures. In fact, most people with herniated discs respond to conservative treatment
within six weeks and are able to return to their normal activities. Some will continue to have
back pain even after treatment.
Can anything be done to prevent a herniated disc?
It is not always possible to prevent a herniated disc, but there are steps you can take to
reduce your risk:
- Use proper lifting techniques. Do not bend at the waist. Bend your knees
while keeping your back straight and use your strong leg muscles to help you
support the load.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Excess weight puts pressure on the lower back.
- Practice good posture when walking, sitting, standing, and sleeping. For
example, stand up straight with your shoulders back, abdomen in, and the
small of your back flat. Sit with your feet flat on the floor or elevated.
Sleep on a firm mattress, and sleep on your side, not your stomach.
- Stretch often when sitting for long periods of time.
- Do not wear high-heeled shoes.
- Exercise regularly to keep the muscles of your back, legs, and stomach
strong. Engage in regular aerobic exercise. Try to balance flexibility with
strengthening in a regular exercise program.
- Stop smoking
- Eat healthy, well-balanced meals
North American Spine Society.
Herniated Cervical Disc
North American Spine Society.
Herniated Lumbar Disc
American Academy of Family Physicians.
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.
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 7/22/2014...#12768