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What Is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc is a common condition and usually not cause for alarm. In fact, most herniated discs heal on their own after a few months of self-care.  

A herniation occurs when one of the cushions between the bones of your spine (vertebrae) tears. These cushions (intervertebral discs) act as shock absorbers for your spine. The jelly-like fluid inside the disc leaks out of the tear and irritates nerve roots along your spine, causing pain. 

Herniated discs, or slipped or ruptured discs, are usually the result of wear and tear. They can affect any part of the spine but typically occur in the low back.

Herniated disc pain relief in the Puget Sound: Why choose us?

At our multidisciplinary Spine Program, we focus on your quality of life. This means we select personalized herniated disc treatments that relieve pain with the least possible disruption to your day-to-day activities. 

Our spine doctors always recommend non-surgical therapies first. And as part of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, we can easily connect you to all the conservative treatments you need. If you do require surgery, you’re in the hands of the region’s leading spine surgeons with expertise in minimally invasive spine procedures.

Herniated vs. bulging disc

A herniated disc has a tear, but a bulging disc is still intact. A bulging disc sags and pushes outward, a bit like a deflated balloon. A degenerated disc often bulges before it herniates. The two conditions cause similar symptoms.

What does a herniated disc feel like?

A herniated disc is one of the most common causes of sciatica. Sciatica describes a range of symptoms in your lower body that result from pressure on the sciatic nerve. 

Symptoms of a ruptured disc in your lower back (lumbar spine) may include: 

  • Burning or electric shock-like sensation down the length of your leg
  • Pain with pressure from things such as sitting, sneezing or coughing
  • Sharp or cramp-like pain in your lower back and the back of your leg
  • Tingling or numbness in your buttocks and back of your thigh
  • Weakness or heaviness in your affected leg

Symptoms of a ruptured disc in your neck (cervical spine) may include: 

  • Neck pain that’s worse in the morning or with certain movements
  • Pain that radiates through your neck, shoulders and arms
  • Pins-and-needles sensation in your arm or hand
  • Weakness in your arm, hand or fingers

What causes a herniated disc?

A herniated disc usually results from spinal degeneration, or spondylosis. Your daily movements put a lot of pressure and stress on your spine. Over time, intervertebral discs lose strength and elasticity. The tough outer layer of the disc can’t contain the fluid and develops a bulge or tear. 

In some cases, herniated discs result from neck or back injuries. Falls, auto accidents, sports injuries or sudden movements can cause a disc to rupture.

Herniated disc risk factors

Wear and tear on the spine is a natural part of aging. But some factors increase your risk of disc degeneration or herniation, including:

  • Sex: Herniated discs are more common in men than women. 
  • Lifestyle: Not exercising weakens back muscles, so more stress is on your discs.
  • Repetitive lifting: Twisting, bending and reaching can lead to disc degeneration. 
  • Smoking: Smoking speeds cell damage and disc degeneration. 
  • Weight: Being overweight or obese puts excess strain on your spine.

Herniated disc diagnosis

Your spine doctor will discuss your medical history and ask you questions about your symptoms, such as: 

  • Do certain movements or activities make the pain worse?
  • How are symptoms affecting your quality of life? 
  • Is the pain sharp, dull or tingling?
  • When did the pain start?
  • Where do you feel pain?

Your doctor will do a physical exam, checking your spine for skeletal abnormalities such as misaligned vertebrae or spinal curvatures. Then, they do a series of tests to evaluate your nerves, reflexes and muscle strength. 

You may also do a straight leg raise test if your doctor suspects a herniated disc in your low back. During this test, you lay on your back with your knees straight. Your doctor gradually lifts your leg. If you feel pain or tingling that radiates down your leg, you likely have a herniated disc.

Herniated disc treatment

There isn’t one single treatment that will relieve herniated disc symptoms. Instead, your treatment plan will include a combination of therapies aimed at improving your quality of life. Few people with a herniated disc need surgery.

  • Effective self-care treatments include: 

    • Cold and hot compresses
    • Gentle exercise that doesn’t cause pain
    • Massage or acupuncture
    • Over-the-counter pain relievers
    • Supportive shoes or orthotics 
    • Yoga and stretching
  • Non-surgical spine treatments help most people manage herniated disc symptoms. The doctors at our Spine Program almost always recommend conservative therapies first. And as part of Virginia Mason Franciscan Health, you have access to a wide range of treatments from one source. 

    Non-surgical herniated disc treatments may include: 

    • Physical therapy
    • Oral anti-inflammatory medications
    • Epidural steroid injections
  • A very small number of people with herniated discs will require spine surgery. We reserve surgery for people whose symptoms severely affect their quality of life. 

    The most common herniated disc surgery is a microdiscectomy. Our spine surgeons routinely perform this procedure and are among the best in the region for minimally invasive spine surgery. 

    During a discectomy, we operate on your herniated disc through a very small incision in your back. We remove the disc material, causing nerve compression without cutting through muscles and other soft tissues. This technique helps you recover faster, with less pain and downtime.

Contact us

Contact us to learn more about the Spine Program or to schedule an appointment with a specialist.