Illness & Conditions - Health Conditions
Lumbar Herniated Disc
Is this topic for you?
This topic is for a people who have a herniated disc in the lower back. If you are looking for information on a herniated disc in the neck, see the topic Cervical Disc Herniation.
What is a herniated disc?
The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine in your back are cushioned by small, spongy discs. When these discs are healthy, they act as shock absorbers for the spine and keep the spine flexible. But when a disc is damaged, it may bulge or break open. This is called a herniated disc . It may also be called a slipped or ruptured disc.
You can have a herniated disc in any part of your spine. But most herniated discs affect the lower back (lumbar spine). Some happen in the neck (cervical spine) and, more rarely, in the upper back (thoracic spine).
What causes a herniated disc?
A herniated disc may be caused by:
What are the symptoms?
When a herniated disc presses on nerve roots , it can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the area of the body where the nerve travels. A herniated disc in the lower back can cause pain and numbness in the buttock and down the leg. This is called sciatica (say "sy-AT-ih-kuh"). Sciatica is the most common symptom of a herniated disc in the low back.
If a herniated disc isn't pressing on a nerve, you may have a backache or no pain at all.
If you have weakness or numbness in both legs along with loss of bladder or bowel control, seek medical care right away. This could be a sign of a rare but serious problem called cauda equina syndrome .
How is a herniated disc diagnosed?
Your doctor may diagnose a herniated disc by asking questions about your symptoms and examining you. If your symptoms clearly point to a herniated disc, you may not need tests.
How is it treated?
Symptoms from a herniated disc usually get better in a few weeks or months. To help you recover:
Usually a herniated disc will heal on its own over time. About half of people with a herniated disc get better within 1 month, and most are better within 6 months. Only about 1 person out of 10 eventually has surgery. 1
Be patient, and keep following your treatment plan. If your symptoms don't get better in a few months, you may want to talk to your doctor about surgery.
Can a herniated disc be prevented?
After you have hurt your back, you are more likely to have back problems in the future. To help keep your back healthy:
Frequently Asked Questions
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Wear and tear, also called disc degeneration , is the usual cause of a herniated disc . As we age, the discs in our back lose some of the fluid that helps them stay flexible. The outer layer of the discs can form tiny tears or cracks. The thick gel inside the disc may be forced out through those cracks and cause the disc to bulge or break open.
This can also happen when you injure your back. Injury can occur from:
If the herniated disc isn't pressing on a nerve, you may have an ache in the low back or no symptoms at all.
Only a few people who have herniated discs have severe or troublesome symptoms.
When the disc does press on a nerve, symptoms may include:
Cauda equina syndrome
Weakness in both legs and the loss of bladder and/or bowel control are symptoms of a specific and severe type of nerve root compression called cauda equina syndrome . This is a rare but serious problem. A person with these symptoms should see a doctor right away.
Due to age, injury, or both, the outer layer of a spinal disc may dry out and form tiny cracks. Sometimes this causes a:
Any of these stages can cause pressure on a nerve root and symptoms of pain and numbness.
The cracks in the disc don't repair themselves, but the pain usually fades over time. Often the body reabsorbs the material from the disc, which helps the pain go away. This process is called resorption. About half of the people with herniated discs in the low back recover within 1 month. And within 6 months, most recover. 1
It's important to see your doctor if you've had constant or increasing pain for more than 4 to 6 weeks. Getting help early on can lower your chance of having lasting problems, such as the following:
What Increases Your Risk
Risk factors are things that increase your risk of having a herniated disc. Some risk factors you can change, and some you can't.
Risk factors that you cannot change
Risk factors that you can change
When To Call a Doctor
Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:
Call your doctor if:
Watchful waiting is a wait-and-see approach. If you get better on your own, you won't need treatment. If you get worse, you and your doctor will decide what to do next.
If you have pain, numbness, or tingling in one leg that gets worse with sitting, standing, or walking (without any obvious leg weakness):
Who to see
For diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of a herniated disc, you may see:
For diagnosis and surgical treatment of a herniated disc, specialists include:
To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.
Exams and Tests
Your doctor will do a medical history and physical exam. If this suggests that you have a herniated disc, you probably won't need other tests.
X-rays typically aren't useful or needed. But if your medical history and physical exam suggest a more serious condition (such as a tumor, infection, fracture, or severe nerve damage), or if your leg pain and other symptoms don't get better after 4 weeks of nonsurgical treatment, your doctor may order X-rays.
Other tests, such as blood tests, may be done to rule out other conditions.
The following tests aren't used as often as an MRI or a CT scan, but they may give your doctor more information:
Your doctor may recommend a short period of rest or reduced activity followed by a gradual increase in activity.
Usually a herniated disc heals on its own. So most of the time nonsurgical treatment is tried first, including:
You're likely to get the most benefit if you have treatment before you've had more than 6 months of symptoms. 2
Surgery is eventually done for about 1 out of 10 people. It can be a good choice for people who have nerve damage that is getting worse or pain that hasn't improved after at least 4 weeks of nonsurgical treatment. 1 For more information, see Surgery.
To help prevent low back pain or a herniated disc:
To reduce pain
The following steps may help to reduce pain:
To strengthen your back
Keep active and do exercises, as recommended by your doctor or physical therapist, to help you return to your usual level of activity. Core stabilization exercises can help you strengthen the muscles of your trunk to protect your back.
Although medicine doesn't cure a herniated disc, it may reduce inflammation and pain and allow you to begin an exercise program that can strengthen your stomach and back muscles.
Surgery is considered if the following conditions are present:
People who have surgery may feel better faster. But in the long run, people treated with surgery and people treated without surgery have similar abilities to work and to be active. 3 Some people require additional disc surgery after their first surgery.
Many people are able to gradually resume work and daily activities soon after surgery. In some cases, your doctor may recommend a rehabilitation program after surgery, which might include physical therapy and home exercises.
Disc surgery isn't considered effective treatment for low back pain that is not caused by a herniated disc. Disc surgery is also not done if back pain is the only symptom the herniated disc causes.
A number of technologies using small incisions or injections for destroying the disc are used by some surgeons. Examples are endoscopic discectomy and electrothermal disc decompression. These techniques are experimental and unproved. If your doctor recommends one of them to treat your herniated disc, make sure to get as much information as possible about the procedure. Consider getting a second opinion .
Laser discectomy uses a focused beam of light to dissolve a herniated disc. Although this technology has been used by some surgeons for several years, it is considered experimental because of the lack of studies on its effectiveness and safety. 4
Other treatments that have been tried include removing the center of the disc and removing all or part of the disc by using suction. These treatments are not considered to be effective.
You can try other treatments besides medicine and surgery, including:
Complementary and alternative medicine
Talk to your doctor before using complementary and alternative medicine to treat a herniated disc.
Some people use complementary and alternative medicine along with standard or conventional care to treat leg and back pain caused by a herniated disc. Some examples are: 4
Other Places To Get Help
Last Revised: January 30, 2013
Author: Healthwise Staff
Hu SS, et al. (2006). Lumbar disc herniation section of Disorders, diseases, and injuries of the spine. In HB Skinner, ed., Current Diagnosis and Treatment in Orthopedics, 4th ed., pp. 246–249. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Rihn JA, et al. (2011). Duration of symptoms resulting from lumbar disc herniation: Effect on treatment outcomes. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, 93(20): 1906–1914.
Atlas SJ, et al. (2005). Long-term outcomes of surgical and nonsurgical management of sciatica secondary to a lumbar disc herniation: 10-year results from the Maine Lumbar Spine Study. Spine, 30(8): 927–935.
Jordan J, et al. (2011). Herniated lumbar disc, search date June 2010. Online version of BMJ Clinical Evidence: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
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