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Herniated Disc

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A herniated disc can occur in the cervical spine (neck) or lumbar spine (lower back). At right: The top disc has herniated, or "slipped," and is pressing on a nerve. A normal disc is shown at bottom.

A herniated disc, also called a slipped disc or ruptured disc, is the result of a tear in the outer layer of a disc which acts as a shock absorber for the spine. It can happen in any part of the spine, but is most common in the lumbar (lower back) or cervical (neck) regions of the spine. It’s a common occurrence in all ages, and happens in men, women, and children.

The spine is made up of stacked bones called vertebrae. In between each of the vertebrae is a small disc that acts as a shock absorber. These discs are a little like jelly doughnuts in that each has a soft, gluey interior (called a nucleus) that is protected by a firm outer layer (called an annulus).

A herniated disc happens when the nucleus is pushed out of the annulus through a rupture, or tear. The “slipped” disc presses on the nerves in the spine, causing pain that can be quite severe. Sometimes the surrounding nerves can also become irritated, causing pain, numbness, or weakness in the arms and legs.

What Causes a Herniated Disc?
Herniated discs can occur from excessive strain or injury, or degeneration due to age. However, slipped discs can be prevented, and the risk of recurrence can be reduced, by following these prevention tips:

Prevention Tips
The following preventive measures can help prevent herniated discs, or keep them from recurring :

  • Strengthen the abdominal muscles to support the back and improve posture. Exercises to strengthen the abs include crunches, variations of sit-ups, and other exercises to provide more spine stability. (See the exercises in our Guide to a Better Back.)
  • Use proper form when lifting (ie, lift from the knees).
  • Avoid stress, which can cause back tension.
  • Keep your weight at a healthy level. Extra pounds can put pressure and strain on the back.

Most patients with a herniated disc will make a full recovery after treatment (see Diagnosing and Treating a Herniated Disc).

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Reviewed by: Eric Elowitz, MD
Last reviewed/last updated: September 2020
Illustration by Thom Graves, CMI