Disc Herniation

Disc herniation is a relatively common condition — but that doesn’t mean it can’t disrupt your life. A herniated disc can aggravate a nearby nerve, causing back pain and other symptoms. A spinal specialist can help you manage more serious symptoms and prevent a chronic condition from developing.

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Finding Relief for Disc Herniation

A disc is a part of your spine found between your vertebrae. These discs absorb impact to help prevent injury and enable a full range of motion. Their tough, rubbery exterior and soft, jelly-like interior are a gentle landing mat for your spinal bones. They help protect your spine from being seriously damaged in situations like a fall, car accident, or even just normal wear and tear.

A herniated disc occurs when a crack forms in the disc’s hard exterior, allowing part of the soft inner nucleus to leak out. Many people with a herniated disc have no symptoms and aren’t even aware of their condition, but sometimes the herniated disc irritates a nearby nerve, resulting in pain and even numbness or tingling.

Learn More About Disc Herniation

A “bulging disc” refers to a similar (but less advanced) version of a herniated disc. A bulging disc means that a disc’s outer layer of tough cartilage has been damaged — but not enough to allow the soft inner cartilage to seep out. A herniated disc, on the other hand, affects both the outer and inner portion of the disc and is much more likely to cause pain. 

You may have also heard the terms “ruptured” or “slipped disc.” These terms are often used interchangeably with the term “herniated disc,” however, they actually describe different things. Though small parts of a disc may rupture or slip, an entire disc cannot since it is fused to the vertebrae.

The most common symptom of a herniated disc is lower back pain or neck pain, but the intensity can vary greatly depending on the position of the herniated disc and the extent of the damage. Most patients with a herniated disc experience an intense episode of back pain or endure longer, more intermittent episodes of pain.

Additional symptoms may vary depending on which part of your body is affected.

  • If your lower back is affected, you may experience pain, burning, tingling, or numbness that radiates from the buttock into the leg, and sometimes the foot. Patients describe this pain as sharp, like an electric shock. Standing, walking or sitting may aggravate it.
  • If your neck is affected, you may notice a dull or sharp pain in your neck or between your shoulder blades. You may also experience pain that radiates down the arm to the hand or fingers, as well as numbness or tingling in the shoulder or arm. Certain positions or neck movements may exacerbate it. 

Some patients with a herniated disc may have no symptoms at all. These patients may never know they have the condition or it may appear on a routine scan during a doctor’s visit. 

Wear and Tear Due to Aging

Normal aging is the number one cause of disc herniation. As we age, our disc material wears down, and the ligaments that hold it in place weaken. From a relatively young age, we gradually begin to lose the spongy disc material that helps our spine absorb shock. This natural wear and tear means that even a minor strain or twist can cause a disc to herniate. 

Injury or Trauma

Most people aren’t able to pinpoint the exact cause of their herniated disc. Rarely, though, a traumatic event such as a fall, car accident, or blow to the back can cause a herniated disc. In these cases, the herniated disc will likely be diagnosed in early treatment for the trauma.

Though disc herniation is relatively common — about 2% of the population experiences it each year. A variety of factors may make a person more likely to experience it in their lifetime.

  • Age: Due to the natural breakdown of disc material, a person is more likely to experience herniation the older they get. The most common time to have a herniated disc is between 30 and 50 years of age.
  • Gender: Women are twice as likely as men to experience disc herniation.
  • Weight: Excess body weight causes additional strain on your body and can cause disc damage.
  • Occupation: Those with physically demanding jobs have a higher risk of back problems. Any job that involves lifting, pushing, pulling, bending, or twisting can cause a herniated disc.

If you’ve experienced disc herniation and want to avoid the pain and discomfort in the future — or if you want to get ahead of a possible herniated disc — there are several preventive measures you can take.

  • Exercise: A body in motion is stronger and more resistant to injury. Focus on movement that strengthens the core and trunk muscles, and avoid putting unnecessary pressure on your joints.
  • Practice good posture: We’re all guilty of slouching or bending over a computer or phone. Whether you’re sitting or standing, try to keep your back straight and aligned — especially when you’re staying in one place for an extended period of time.
  • Maintain a healthy weight: Reducing the amount of weight your body has to support can keep it strong and healthy for longer. Even losing a small amount of weight can have a positive effect for your spinal health.

Quit smoking: Smoking can have adverse effects on far more than just your lungs. Giving up tobacco will increase the amount of oxygen being pumped to various parts of your body, including your spine.

Millions of people suffer from lower back pain, with a wide variety of causes. Conditions that may mimic the symptoms of disc herniation include arthritis, osteoporosis, cervicalgia, compression fracture, degenerative disc disease, muscle strain, and more. 

Because many of these conditions involve overlapping symptoms, it’s best to consult a spinal health specialist to help you find the right diagnosis and treatment plan.

If pain is seriously affecting your life, you should never try to suffer through it. Seek medical care if:

  • Your pain travels down your arm or leg
  • You experience numbness, tingling, or weakness
  • Your pain prevents you from completing basic daily tasks
  • Your pain is the result of a traumatic injury, such as a fall or accident
  • Your pain persists for longer than 6 weeks
  • Your pain is unresponsive to home treatments


A doctor with experience in spinal health can help diagnose your condition and explore a variety of treatment options — both surgical and non-surgical.

As with any type of back pain, the first step to finding herniated disc relief is to take it easy. Start with easy home remedies like over-the-counter medication, gentle movement, and alternating hot and cold packs. Bed rest is not recommended, as inactivity can actually make back pain worse.

Non-Surgical Treatments

A painful herniated disc is often treated with an epidural steroid injection, a minimally invasive procedure that can provide relief for mild neck and back pain. A doctor will administer the injection under live X-ray in order to deliver the medication to a highly specific area. This can help reduce inflammation and improve pain and discomfort, providing relief for up to a year.

Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy, which may include stretching, muscle stimulation, gentle massage, ultrasound, and other methods. To achieve the best results, pair physical therapy with additional home remedies and lifestyle changes.

Surgical Treatments

Some herniated discs require surgery. Your doctor will likely try to exhaust all other treatment options before considering a surgical option. You may be a candidate for surgery if you continue to have severe pain, numbness or weakness, and reduced movement after six weeks of treatment. 

Herniated disc surgery involves removing the protruding portion of the disc. In the unlikely event that the entire disc needs to be removed, a spinal specialist can replace it with an artificial disc to relieve pain and preserve the motion of your cervical spine. 

Next Steps: Living With Disc Herniation

As you continue to manage your disc herniation, the key is to take good care of your body — specifically your spine. 

  • Resume activity slowly. After any treatment — surgical or non-surgical — go back to your normal activities with caution. Start slow and add a bit more activity each day, paying attention to how your body responds.
  • Stay in touch with your doctor. If you experience major changes in your symptoms, contact your doctor as soon as possible. They will likely also schedule a series of follow-up appointments to monitor your progress.
  • Stay consistent. If you’ve found home remedies or lifestyle swaps that work for you, keep at it. Resist the urge to discontinue treatment as soon as you start feeling better.

Consider additional treatments. Some patients have found that alternative medicine such as chiropractic, acupuncture, and massage provide additional relief.

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