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Herniated discs is a condition when the outer wall of a disc in the spine tears or ruptures. When the disc ruptures, the soft material inside that helps to cushion the vertebrae of the spine can squeeze out and press on nearby nerves. Learn more about herniated discs.

What is a herniated disc?

The spine is a column of 33 bones (vertebrae) stacked on top of each other. The vertebrae are each separated by discs that cushion the vertebrae. This cushion allows the vertebrae to move properly. Each disc is a small, circular capsule with a tough outer wall (the annulus) and a softer core (the nucleus).

If the outer wall of the spinal disc weakens, it may push out or bulge toward the nerves. This is known as a bulging disc. If the outer wall of the disc tears, the soft material inside the disc can squeeze out and press on nearby nerves. This is called a herniated disc.

A herniated disc (also called ruptured disc) can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the legs or back. In some people, it may cause no symptoms. Most herniated discs occur in the lower part of the spine.


The most common signs and symptoms of a herniated disc include:

  • Lower back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Muscle weakness in the legs
  • Numbness in the legs or feet
  • Sciatica or pain that starts near the lower back and travels down to the legs
  • Muscle spasms

When to See a Doctor

See a doctor if you have symptoms of a herniated disc.


Disc herniation is often the result of aging. As people age, the discs in the spine become less flexible and more prone to tearing or rupturing. In some cases, a severe injury may cause a disc to herniate.

Diagnosis and Tests

Your physician will do a complete medical history and physical exam to rule out potential causes of your pain. Other tests may include:

  • X-rays. While X-rays don’t detect herniated discs, they can be used to rule out other causes of your pain.
  • Computerized tomography (CT). A CT scan is used to view spinal structures that cannot be seen on conventional x-rays. This test will often detect disc rupture, spinal stenosis, or tumors.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test uses a magnetic force to create computer-generated images of soft tissues such as muscles, ligaments, and tendons. The test can confirm the location of the herniated disc and see which nerves are affected.
  • Myelogram. This test can show pressure on the spinal cord or nerves due to herniated discs.
  • Electromyogram (EMG) is a test that can check nerve and muscle function of the spine.

You may also have a procedure called a discography. A discography is a procedure used for diagnosing whether or not damaged discs in the spine are causing pain in the neck or back. During the procedure, a doctor injects x-ray dye into several discs to identify those that are leaking and causing pain.


Treatment for herniated discs will depend on how much pain you have and your overall health. Treatment options may include:

  • Medications to relieve pain
  • Bed rest
  • Spinal cortisone injections
  • Physical therapy
  • Surgery


While you can’t stop the aging process, there are measures you can take to reduce your risk for herniated discs. These measures include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Exercising regularly
  • Using good posture

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