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Herniated disk

You’ve probably heard people say they have a "slipped" or "ruptured" disk in the back. What they’re actually describing is a herniated disk, a common source of lower back pain.

Disks are soft, rubbery pads found between the hard bones (vertebrae) that make up the spinal column. In the middle of the spinal column is the spinal canal, a hollow space that contains the spinal cord and other nerve roots. The disks between the vertebrae allow the back to flex or bend. Disks also act as shock absorbers.

The outer edge of the disk is a ring of gristle-like cartilage called the annulus. The center of the disk is a gel-like substance called the nucleus. A disk herniates or ruptures when part of the center nucleus pushes the outer edge of the disk into the spinal canal, and puts pressure on the nerves

Information about herniated disk

The spinal column is made up of 26 vertebrae that are joined together and permit forward and backward bending, side bending, and rotation of the spine. Five distinct regions comprise the spinal column, including the cervical (neck) region, thoracic (chest) region, lumbar (low back) region, sacral and coccygeal (tailbone) region. The cervical region consists of seven vertebrae, the thoracic region includes 12 vertebrae, and the lumbar region contains five vertebrae. The sacrum is composed of five fused vertebrae, which are connected to four fused vertebrae forming the coccyx. Intervertebral disks lie between each adjacent vertebra.

Each disk is composed of a gelatinous material in the center, called the nucleus pulposus, surrounded by rings of a fiberous tissue (annulus fibrosus). In disk herniation, an intervertebral disk's central portion herniates or slips through the surrounding annulus fibrosus into the spinal canal, putting pressure on a nerve root. Disk herniation most commonly affects the lumbar region between the fifth lumbar vertebra and the first sacral vertebra. However, disk herniation can also occur in the cervical spine. The incidence of cervical disk herniation is most common between the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae. The second most common area for cervical disk herniation occurs between the sixth and seventh cervical vertebrae. Disk herniation is less common in the thoracic region.

Predisposing factors associated with disk herniation include age, gender, and work environment. The peak age for occurrence of disk herniation is between 20-45 years of age. Studies have shown that males are more commonly affected than females in lumbar disk herniation by a 3:2 ratio. Prolonged exposure to a bent-forward work posture is correlated with an increased incidence of disk herniation.

There are four classifications of disk pathology:

  • A protrusion may occur where a disk bulges without rupturing the annulus fibrosis.
  • The disk may prolapse where the nucleus pulposus migrates to the outermost fibers of the annulus fibrosis.
  • There may be a disk extrusion, which is the case if the annulus fibrosis perforates and material of the nucleus moves into the epidural space.
  • The sequestrated disk may occur as fragments from the annulus fibrosis and nucleus pulposus are outside the disk proper.

Causes of herniated disk

Disks have a high water content. As people age, the water content decreases, so the disk begins to shrink and the spaces between the vertebrae get narrower. Also, the disk itself becomes less flexible. Other conditions that can weaken the disk include:


  • wear-and-tear
  • excessive weight which can squeeze the softer material of the nucleus out toward the spinal canal
  • bad posture
  • improper lifting
  • sudden pressure (which may be slight)

The fibrous outer ring may tear. As the disk material pinches and puts pressure on the nerve roots, pain results. Sometimes fragments of the disk enter the spinal canal where they can damage the nerves that control bowel and urinary functions.

Symptoms of Herniated disk

Low back pain affects four out of five people. So pain alone isn’t enough to recognize a herniated disk. However, if the back pain is the result of a fall or a blow to your back, don’t hesitate to contact a doctor. The most common symptom of a herniated disk is sciatica, a sharp, often shooting pain that extends from the buttocks down the back of one leg. This is caused by pressure on the spinal nerve. Other symptoms include

  • Weakness in one leg
  • Tingling (a "pins-and-needles" sensation) or numbness in one leg
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (If you also have weakness in both legs, you could have a serious problem. Seek immediate attention.)
  • A burning pain centered in the back

Diagnosis of herniated disk

Your medical history is key to a proper diagnosis. You may have a history of back pain with gradually increasing leg pain. Often a specific injury causes a disk to herniate. A physical examination can usually determine which nerve roots are affected (and how seriously). A simple x-ray may show evidence of disk or degenerative spine changes.



Unless serious neurologic symptoms occur, herniated disks can initially be treated with pain medication and up to 48 hours of bed rest. There is no proven benefit from resting more than 48 hours. Patients are then encouraged to gradually increase their activity. Pain medications, including antiinflammatories, muscle relaxers, or in severe cases, narcotics, may be continued if needed.

Epidural steroid injections have been used to decrease pain by injecting an antiinflammatory drug, usually a corticosteroid, around the nerve root to reduce inflammation and edema (swelling). This partly relieves the pressure on the nerve root as well as resolves the inflammation.

Physical therapy

Physical therapists are skilled in treating acute back pain caused by the disk herniation. The physical therapist can provide noninvasive therapies, such as ultrasound or diathermy to project heat deep into the tissues of the back or administer manual therapy, if mobility of the spine is impaired. They may help improve posture and develop an exercise program for recovery and long-term protection. Appropriate exercise can help take pressure off inflamed nerve structures, while improving overall posture and flexibility. Traction can be used to try to decrease pressure on the disk. A lumbar support can be helpful for a herniated disk at this level as a temporary measure to reduce pain and improve posture.


Surgery is often appropriate for conditions that do not improve with the usual treatment. In this event, a strong, flexible spine is important for a quick recovery after surgery. There are several surgical approaches to treating a herniated disk, including the classic discectomy, microdiscectomy, or percutanteous discectomy. The basic differences among these procedures are the size of the incision, how the disk is reached surgically, and how much of the disk is removed.

Discectomy is the surgical removal of the portion of the disk that is putting pressure on a nerve causing the back pain. In the classic disectomy, the surgeon first enters through the skin and then removes a bony portion of the vertebra called the lamina, hence the term laminectomy. The surgeon removes the disk material that is pressing on a nerve. Rarely is the entire lamina or disk entirely removed. Often, only one side is removed and the surgical procedure is termed hemi-laminectomy.

In microdiscectomy, through the use of an operating microscope, the surgeon removes the offending bone or disk tissue until the nerve is free from compression or stretch. This procedure is possible using local anesthesia. Microsurgery techniques vary and have several advantages over the standard discectomy, such as a smaller incision, less trauma to the musculature and nerves, and easier identification of structures by viewing into the disk space through microscope magnification.

Percutaneous disk excision is performed on an outpatient basis, is less expensive than other surgical procedures, and does not require a general anesthesia. The purpose of percutaneous disk excision is to reduce the volume of the affected disk indirectly by partial removal of the nucleus pulposus, leaving all the structures important to stability practically unaffected. In this procedure, large incisions are avoided by inserting devices that have cutting and suction capability. Suction is applied and the disk is sliced and aspirated.

Athroscopic microdiscectomy is similar to percutaneous discectomy, however it incorporates modified arthroscopic instruments, including scopes and suction devices. A suction irrigation of saline solution is established through two entry sites. A video discoscope is introduced from one site and the deflecting instruments from the opposite side. In this way, the surgeon is able to search and extract the nuclear fragments under direct visualization.

Laser disk decompression is performed using similar means as percutaneous excision and arthroscopic microdiscectomy, however laser energy is used to remove the disk tissue. Here, laser energy is percutanteously introduced through a needle to vaporize a small volume of nucleus pulposus, thereby dropping the pressure of the disk and decompressing the involved neural tissues. One disadvantage of this procedure is the high initial cost of the laser equipment. It is important to realize that only a very small percentage of people with herniated lumbar disks go on to require surgery. Further, surgery should be followed by appropriate rehabilitation to decrease the chance of reinjury.


Chemonucleolysis is an alternative to surgical excision. Chymopapain, a purified enzyme derived from the papaya plant, is injected percutaneously into the disk space to reduce the size of the herniated disks. It hydrolyses proteins, thereby decreasing water-binding capacity, when injected into the nucleus pulposus inner disk material. The reduction in size of the disk relieves pressure on the nerve root.

Spinal fusion

Spinal fusion is the process by which bone grafts harvested from the iliac crest (thick border of the ilium located on the pelvis) are placed between the intervertebral bodies after the disk material is removed. This approach is used when there is a need to reestablish the normal bony relationship between the vertebrae. A total discectomy may be needed in some cases because lumbar spinal fusion can help prevent recurrent lumbar disk herniation at a particular level.

Alternative treatment

Acupuncture involves the use of fine needles inserted along the pathway of the pain to move energy locally and relieve the pain. An acupuncturist determines the location of the nerves affected by the herniated disk and positions the needles appropriately. Massage therapists may also provide short-term relief from a herniated disk. Following manual examination and x-ray diagnosis, chiropractic treatment usually includes manipulation to correct muscle and joint malfunctions, while care is taken not to place an additional strain on the injured disk. If a full trial of conservative therapy fails, or if neurologic problems (weakness, bowel or bladder problems, and sensory loss) develop, the next step is usually evaluation by an orthopedic surgeon.


Only 5-10% of patients with unrelenting sciatica and neurological involvement, leading to chronic pain of the lumbar spine, need to have a surgical procedure performed. This strongly suggests that many patients with herniated disks at the lumbar level respond well to conservative treatment. For those patients who do require surgery for lumbar disk herniation, the reviewed procedures of nerve root decompression caused by disk herniation is favorable. Results of studies varied from 60-90% success rates. Disk surgery has progressively evolved in the direction of decreasing invasiveness. Each surgical procedure is not without possible complications, which can lead to chronic low back pain and restricted lifestyle.


Proper exercises to strengthen the lower back and abdominal muscles are key in preventing excess stress and compressive forces on lumbar disks. Good posture will help prevent problems on cervical, thoracic, and lumbar disks. A good flexibility program is critical for prevention of muscle and spasm that can cause an increase in compressive forces on disks at any level. Proper lifting of heavy objects is important for all muscles and levels of the individual disks. Good posture in sitting, standing, and lying down is helpful for the spine. Losing weight, if needed, can prevent weakness and unnecessary stress on the disks caused by obesity. Choosing proper footwear may also be helpful to reduce the impact forces to the lumbar disks while walking on hard surfaces. Wearing special back support devices may be helpful if heavy lifting is required with combinations of twisting.


This web site is intended for your own informational purposes only. No person or entity associated with this web site purports to be engaging in the practice of medicine through this medium. The information you receive is not intended as a substitute for the advice of a physician or other health care professional. If you have an illness or medical problem, contact your health care provider.


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