A herniated disk refers to a problem with one of the rubbery cushions (disks) between the individual bones (vertebrae) that stack up to make your spine.
A spinal disk is a little like a jelly donut, with a softer center encased within a tougher exterior. Sometimes called a slipped disk or a ruptured disk, a herniated disk occurs when some of the softer "jelly" pushes out through a crack in the tougher exterior.
A herniated disk can irritate nearby nerves and result in pain, numbness or weakness in an arm or leg. On the other hand, many people experience no symptoms from a herniated disk. Most people who have a herniated disk don't need surgery to correct the problem.
The rubbery disks that lie between the vertebrae in your spine consist of a soft center (nucleus) surrounded by a tougher exterior (annulus). A herniated disk occurs when a portion of the nucleus ...
You can have a herniated disk without knowing it — herniated disks sometimes show up on spinal images of people who have no symptoms of a disk problem. But some herniated disks can be painful. The location of your symptoms may vary, depending on where the herniated disk is located along your spine. Most herniated disks occur in your lower back (lumbar spine), although they can also occur in your neck (cervical spine).
The most common signs and symptoms of a herniated disk are:
When to see a doctor
Disk herniation is most often the result of a gradual, aging-related wear and tear called disk degeneration. As you age, your spinal disks lose some of their water content. That makes them less flexible and more prone to tearing or rupturing with even a minor strain or twist.
Most people can't pinpoint the exact cause of their herniated disk. Sometimes, using your back muscles instead of your leg and thigh muscles to lift large, heavy objects can lead to a herniated disk, as can twisting and turning while lifting. Rarely, a traumatic event such as a fall or a blow to the back can cause a herniated disk.
Factors that increase your risk of a herniated disk may include:
Your spinal cord doesn't extend into the lower portion of your spinal canal. Just below your waist, the spinal cord separates into a group of long nerve roots (cauda equina) that resemble a horse's tail. Rarely, disk herniation can compress the entire cauda equina. Emergency surgery may be required to avoid permanent weakness or paralysis.
Seek emergency medical attention if you have:
Preparing for your appointment
You're likely to initially bring your symptoms to the attention of your family doctor. He or she may refer you to a doctor specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, orthopedic surgery, neurology or neurosurgery.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
In most cases of herniated disk, a physical exam and a medical history are all that's needed to make a diagnosis. If your doctor suspects another condition or needs to see which nerves are affected, he or she may order one or more of the following tests.
MRI of herniated disk
MRI image at left shows a side view of a herniated lumbar disk (white arrow). At right, MRI image shows a cross section view of a herniated lumbar disk....
Treatments and drugs
Conservative treatment — mainly avoiding painful positions and following a planned exercise and pain-medication regimen — relieves symptoms in nine out of 10 people with a herniated disk. Many people get better in a month or two with conservative treatment. Imaging studies show that the protruding or displaced portion of the disk shrinks over time, corresponding to the improvement in symptoms.
A physical therapist may also recommend:
In many cases, surgeons can remove just the protruding portion of the disk. Rarely, however, the entire disk must be removed. In these cases, the vertebrae may need to be fused together with metal hardware to provide spinal stability. Or your surgeon may suggest the implantation of an artificial disk.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Coping and support
Pain affects more than just your physical well-being. If you have to deal with recurring herniated disks or other back problems, your psychological and emotional health also are vulnerable. These tips may help you cope with pain related to a herniated disk:
To help prevent a herniated disk:
Last Updated: 2010-12-18
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