What is a Herniated Disc?

A disc herniation is a common back and neck problem in which the tough outer layer of cartilage cracks and some of the soft jelly-like cartilage in the center of the disc slips out. Discs, rubbery cushions between the bones in the spine (vertebrae), absorb shock when you walk or run. Cartilage cushions and protects joints, preventing bones from rubbing against each other.

A herniated disc is also called a “slipped” or “ruptured” disc. Sometimes, the herniated disc irritates nerves near the disc, causing pain and other symptoms. But some herniated discs aren’t painful.

Herniated discs are usually caused by normal wear and tear on the spine. Sometimes, lifting heavy things the wrong way or twisting and turning while lifting something can cause a herniated disc. Rarely, a fall or getting hit on the back can cause this.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?

Most symptoms of a herniated disc affect one side of the body:

  • One leg and/or one side of the butt for a herniated disc in the back.
  • One arm, and sometimes the shoulders and neck, for a herniated neck disc.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain that can range from a dull ache to severe pain.
  • Numbness, tingling, and burning.
  • Muscle weakness or spasm.
  • Tingling or numbness.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

For a herniated disc in the back, the most common symptom is a sharp pain in the butt that goes down the leg (sciatica).

Get medical care right away if you have loss of bladder or bowel control and a lot of weakness in both arms or legs.

What Are the Treatments for a Herniated Disc?

Most herniated discs get better with medicines, exercise, and by avoiding painful positions like bending forward. Treatments include:

  • Medicines:
    • Pain medicines: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or acetaminophen:
      • NSAIDs like ibuprofen (e.g., Advil and Motrin) help relieve pain and reduce inflammation.
      • Acetaminophen (Tylenol) relieves pain.
    • Opioid pain medicines like codeine or morphine.
    • Muscle relaxers for muscle spasms.
    • Nerve pain medications to relieve pain from damaged nerves.
  • Physical therapy:
    • Positions and exercises designed to relieve pain.
    • Possibly: Heat or ice, traction, ultrasound, and/or electrical stimulation.
  • Short-term bracing.
  • Injection of steroids into the area around the spine’s nerves to relieve pain and increase function.

A few people with a herniated disc need surgery if these treatments don’t work after about 6 weeks, and there is still:

  • Numbness or weakness.
  • Difficulty standing or walking.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.

Common types of surgery for a herniated disc are:

  • Surgery to remove the part of the disc causing the pain. This is the most common surgery. (It’s called discectomy.)
  • Surgery to remove the disc and replace it with an artificial disc. This is rarely needed.