Skip to main content
Dartmouth-Hitchcock logo
Summer Flowers In This Section

Herniated Disc

Alternative names: Herniated Lumbar Disc, Slipped Disc, Ruptured Disc

What is a herniated disc?
What are the signs of a herniated disc?
What causes a herniated disc?
How does my doctor tell if I have a herniated disc?
How is a herniated disc treated?

What is a herniated disc?

A herniated disc (slipped disc) is a painful back condition that occurs when some of the disc material in the backbone pops out of place and bulges into the spinal canal. It is also known as a herniated lumbar or ruptured disc.

What are the signs of a herniated disc?

  • Extreme, sudden pain, usually in the lower back and legs
  • Numbness or a pins-and-needles sensation can occur after a while

What causes a herniated disc?

A herniated disc usually occurs when the back is bent forward and it is even more likely to happen if the person is bending forward and lifting something heavy with their back bent. Strain on the back means that there is increased pressure at the front of the spine, and the back of the spine is being stretched. This opens up the gap between the vertebrae (bones) at the back. The core of the disc is then being squeezed by pressure from front to back, and at the same time its way out at the back is being made easier.

Some causing factors include:

  • Degeneration of disc material with age
  • Lifting something heavy with a bent back
  • Sudden twists
  • A previous slipped (herniated) disc, especially in people who are overweight or who work in heavy manual jobs
  • Coughing, especially in smokers (who cough more often than non-smokers), puts pressure on the spine from inside the body
  • Family tendency to suffer from slipped discs

How does my doctor tell if I have a herniated disc?

Your doctor may take some of the following steps to see if you have a slipped disc:

  • Talk with the patient to find out if the pain occurred after a twist, lifting something heavy, or some other physical action
  • Ask questions about a family history or a previous history of slipped discs
  • Perform a physical examination, by looking at the patient's back and testing for discomfort in different positions
  • Arrange for a neurologic examination
  • Order an MRI (magnetic resonance image) to get a clear view of the problem, if indicated

How is a herniated disc treated?

Initial treatment is with anti-inflammatory medications, together with rest until the pain has subsided enough to allow the person to get up and walk. Continuing to stay immobile after this point is not normally recommended. Lifting must be avoided for a substantial period while it heals, and heavy lifting is unwise for the foreseeable future.

Physical therapy can be very helpful in the early stages, to help get the disc back into place and encourage getting up and moving around.

In most cases, healing happens without the need for surgery. If surgery is recommended, it can be used to remove the disc causing the problem.