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What is a Herniated Disc?

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You may have met people with back pain who tell you they have a herniated disc. But do you know what a herniated disc really is?

Your backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between them are soft discs filled with a jelly-like substance. These discs cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. As you age, the discs break down or degenerate. As they do, they lose their cushioning ability. This can lead to pain if the back is stressed.

A herniated disk is a disc that ruptures. This allows the jelly-like center of the disc to leak, irritating the nearby nerves. This can cause sciatica or back pain.

Your doctor will diagnose a herniated disc with a physical exam and, sometimes, imaging tests. With treatment, most people recover. Treatments include rest, pain and anti-inflammatory medicines, physical therapy, and sometimes surgery.

Herniated Disc Symptoms
When part of a disc presses on a nerve, it can cause pain in the back and the legs. The location of the pain depends on which disc is weak. How bad the pain is depends on how much of the disc is pressing on the nerve. In most people with herniated discs, the pain spreads over the buttocks and goes down the back of one thigh and into the calf. This is known as sciatica because the pain travels along the path of the sciatic nerve.

Some people have pain in both legs. In some people, the legs or feet feel numb or tingly. The pain from a herniated disc is usually worse when you’re active and gets better when you’re resting. Coughing, sneezing, sitting, driving and bending forward may make the pain worse. The pain gets worse because these movements put more pressure on the nerve. People who have painful herniated discs often try to change positions to reduce the pain. You may have found that holding yourself up with your hands while you are sitting helps the pain. Shifting your weight to one side may also help.

How does a disc become herniated?
As you grow older, the discs in your spine weaken and become flatter — less cushiony. If a disc becomes too weak, the outer part may tear. The inside part of the disc then pushes through the tear and presses on the nerves beside it. Herniated discs are most common in people in their 30s and 40s.


Treatment generally consists of pain management medication, exercises to help strengthen the muscles around the discs and to improve your posture, and in severe cases surgery.


Every case is different so if you’re dealing with back pain, talk to your doctor for help and diagnosis.

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