6 Things to Know About Herniated Discs

Doctor William C Lloyd Healthgrades Medical Reviewer
Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Written By Mary Elizabeth Dallas on November 22, 2020
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    Herniated discs are a common cause of lower back pain.
    The bones of your spine have small, round discs between them. These discs are like cushions. They help absorb shock and keep the bones in your spine from pressing on each other as you walk, run and move. A herniated disc occurs when one of your discs moves or bulges out of place. This usually happens in the lower back. It’s very painful and is a common cause of lower back pain. The pain may extend down to your leg, ankle or foot. You may also lose some feeling or have tingling and weakness in your legs.
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    1. Some people are at higher risk than others.
    The older you get, the more likely you are to have a herniated disc. Discs in the spine contain a lot of water. They tend to become weaker and drier over time—a process called disc degeneration. As you get older, your discs may also shrink, causing the bones in your spine to get closer together. Being overweight also puts stress on your lower back. This can increase the risk for a herniated disc. Lifting heavy objects with your back instead of your legs and constant bending or twisting can also lead to a herniated disc.
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    2. You can reduce your risk of a herniated disc.
    Making certain lifestyle changes can help reduce your risk of a herniated disc. Getting regular exercise helps protect and strengthen your back. If you smoke, stop. Smoking reduces the supply of oxygen to your discs, making them dry out and weaken faster. Be mindful of your posture too, especially while you're sitting. Prolonged sitting or driving puts extra strain on your neck and spine. It’s also important to protect your back by using your leg muscles when pulling and lifting.
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    3. Physical exams help diagnose a herniated disc.
    Your doctor will do a physical exam to evaluate your back pain and find the source of your discomfort. You may need to lie down and move into various positions. Your doctor will check your reflexes, muscle strength, and ability to move during the exam. Your doctor also will ask about other health issues or habits that may play a role in your back pain.
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    4. You may need tests.
    Your doctor may order certain tests to diagnose a herniated disc, such as a CT scan or MRI. These tests create pictures of your spine and the structures around it. They can confirm that you have a disc problem. Your doctor may also order a test to check for nerve damage. Sometimes doctors order X-rays too. X-ray images won’t confirm that you have a herniated disc, but they will help your doctor rule out other health issues, such as an infection, tumor, or broken bone.
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    5. Doctors usually recommend conservative treatment first.
    Doctors often recommend oral or injected medications to ease pain and inflammation. You may need to rest in bed for a day or two. Then it's important to get up and start moving again. Try not to sit down for a long period of time. Be sure to take breaks. Avoid heavy lifting or strenuous activity. Physical therapy can also help. Doing specific exercises can strengthen the muscles of your back and belly, which support your spine.
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    6. Sometimes surgery is necessary.
    Most people with a herniated disc don’t need to have surgery. The injury often heals on its own, with the help of medication. However, if your pain doesn’t improve after six weeks, surgery may be an option. Your doctor also may recommend surgery if you have weakness or trouble walking. Surgery for a herniated disc is generally considered safe, but problems can develop, such as infection or nerve damage.
6 Things to Know About Herniated Discs

About The Author

  1. Herniated Disc: Tests and Diagnosis. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/herniated-disk/basics/tests-diagnosis/con-20029957
  2. Herniated Disk in the Lower Back. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. http://orthoinfo.aaos.org/topic.cfm?topic=a00534
  3. Herniated Disk Surgery. Temple University Hospital. http://neuro.templehealth.org/content/diskectomy.htm 
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Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 22
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