Herniated Disc (Ruptured Disc, Prolapsed Disc, Slipped Disc)

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A herniated disc happens when discs in the spine bulges from its proper place. Discs are small circular cushions between the vertebrae (bones) in the spine. The discs are compressible and act as cushions for the bones of the spine. Herniated discs press on the nerves where they exit from the spinal column in close proximity to the disc and can cause severe pain. This is most common in the lower spine.

Herniated Lumbar Disc

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Herniated discs can occur when discs lose water content, become flatter, and provide less cushioning. If they become too weak, the outer part may tear. The inside part may then push through the tear and press on the nerves next to it.

Risk Factors

A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.

  • Age: 30s and 40s
  • Trauma from a fall, accident, or sudden twisting
  • Strain on the backeither repeated or sudden (as from lifting a heavy weight)
  • Certain jobs requiring heavy lifting


Symptoms include:

  • Painthe severity and location of the pain depend upon which disc is herniatedand how large the herniation is.
    • Pain may spread over the buttocks, down the back of one thigh, and into the calf
    • Pain may be in one or both (more rare) legs
  • Numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs or feet
  • Cauda equina syndrome: involves bowel or bladder changes and/or numbness in the groin this is an emergency, and needs immediate medical attention
  • In severe cases, inability to find comfort even lying down
  • Sudden aching or twisted neck that cannot be straightened without severe pain
  • Numbness, tingling, or weakness in one or both arms


The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. You will also be asked specific questions about the pain and examine the spine. The doctor will test the movement, strength, and reflexes of the arms and legs.

Tests may include:X-ray a test that uses radiation to take a picture of structures inside the body, especially bones CT scan a type of x-ray that uses a computer to make pictures of structures inside the body MRI a test that uses magnetic waves to make pictures of structures inside the body and allows both the bones and the disc to be seen Diskography a test that involves injecting a dye into the center of the disc and then taking an x-ray, which may show the dye leaking out Electrodiagnostic testing a test that measures the electrical activity of muscle by placing needle electrodes into the muscle (This can indicate whether the nerve signal to the muscle is firing normally.) Myelography a type of x-ray that uses dye injected in the space around the spinal cord to more clearly outline the space containing the spinal cord, the nerves, and show any disc herniation TreatmentTreatments may include: Physical MedicineBedrest Back or neck massage and physical therapy to: Relax the neck or back musclesDecrease painIncrease strength and mobilityAfter the acute phase, there are certain back and abdominal exercises that can help the recovery phase and prevent recurrences.Hot or cold packs help reduce pain and muscle spasms. Stretching the spine A doctor or chiropractor can sometimes help reduce pain by stretching your spine.Any spinal manipulation for a chronic disc problem must be done very carefully and only by an experienced, licensed practitioner.Tractionweights and pulleys may be used to relieve pressure on the discs and keep the patient from moving around; this is more common for discs in the neck area.Neck collar or bracefor a herniated disc in the neck, a neck collar or brace may be used to relieve muscle spasms. MedicationsNSAIDsnonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may be prescribed to reduce inflammation and pain.Muscle relaxantsmuscle relaxants may be prescribed to reduce muscle spasms.Analgesicsvarious types of analgesic medications may be prescribed, depending on the level of pain. Interventional Spine CareSteroid injectionsif medicine doesn't help, steroids may be injected into the area around the nerve and disc herniation backbone to reduce pain and inflammation.Minimally invasive disc proceduresthese include nucleoplasy and intradiscal electrothermy (IDET), chemonucleolysisinjection of an enzyme into the herniated disc to dissolve the protruding part. Surgery Surgery may be used for people who fail to respond to other treatments. Immediate surgery is necessary for cauda equina syndrome. Options include:
Laminectomyremoval of some of the bone overlying the spinal canal and of the protruding disc under thatMicro diskectomyremoval of fragments of herniated disc through a smaller incision without doing a laminectomySpinal fusionfusing of vertebrae (back bones) together with bone grafts or metal rods (rarely done for first-time disc problems) Prevention The following strategies may help you reduce your chance of having a herniated disc: Practice good posturestanding and sitting straight, keeping your back straight when lifting.Maintain a healthy weight.Exercise regularly. Ask your doctor about exercises to strengthen your back and stomach.Don't wear high-heeled shoes.If you sit for long periods of time, use a stool to bring your knees above your hips. RESOURCES: American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeonshttp://www.aaos.org American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitationwww.aapmr.org American Chiropractic Associationhttp://www.amerchiro.org CANADIAN RESOURCES Canadian Orthopaedic Associationhttp://www.coa-aco.org/ Canadian Orthopaedic Foundationhttp://www.canorth.org/default.asp References: American Academy of Family Physicians website. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/online/en/home.html .
American College of Physicians Complete Home Medical Guide . DK Publishing; 1999. Awad JN. Moskovich R. Lumbar disc herniations: surgical versus nonsurgical treatment. Clinical Orthopaedics & Related Research . 443:183-97, 2006 Feb. Ellenberg M, Honet JC. Frontera: Essentials of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation . 1st ed. Philadelphia; Hanley and Belfus; 2002. Ch 46. Slipman CW, Derby R, Simeone FA, Mayer TG. Interventional Spine: An Algorithmic Approach. Philadelphia: Saunders Elsevier; 2008. Last reviewed January 2008 by John C. Keel, MDPlease be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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