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Herniated disc

Overview of herniated disc

The bones that make up your spine are called vertebrae. Between each of these bones is a rubber-like, durable cushion (disc) that acts as a shock absorber when you move. Each disc has a soft, jelly-like center, surrounded by a tough, rubbery exterior. A herniated disc, or “slipped disc,” occurs when some of the inner “jelly” pushes out through a crack in the exterior of the disc.

If you have a herniated disc, you may experience inflammation and nerve irritation in your spine, causing pain or achiness when the damaged disc presses on a spinal nerve.

Herniated disc pain most often occurs in your lower back, since these vertebrae are under more pressure and support more of your body. It’s also possible, though less common, to develop a herniated disc in your neck.

If your doctor has recommended treatment for herniated disc, find a specialist at Dignity Health to get the orthopedic care you need.


The exact symptoms caused by a herniated disc vary depending on where in the spine the hernia occurs. The nerves in the spine run to different parts of the body. Some people experience no symptoms at all.

For example, if you have a herniated disc in your lower or mid back (your lumbar spine), you may have sciatic nerve pain in one of your legs, leg tingling and numbness, or a sharp, burning pain in your lower back.

A herniated disc in your neck (your cervical spine) may cause headaches, especially in the back of your head. Herniated discs can also cause tingling or numbness in one arm or burning pain in your neck and shoulder. This pain may shoot down one of your arms.

Nerve pain typically only affects one side of the body. Other common symptoms indicating a herniated disc include:

  • Pain that worsens with movement or leaning forward
  • Pain that develops quickly, even if there is no distinct moment of injury
  • Neurological symptoms such as “foot drop,” where it is difficult to lift one of your feet or you find it difficult or impossible to walk on the balls of your feet
  • Leg pain that feels searing, sharp, burning, or piercing, typically only on one side

Consult a doctor at Dignity Health if you experience any numbness, or if any of these symptoms get worse over time. If you have extreme nerve compression, you’ll need medical assistance, as this can lead to permanent nerve damage.


As we age, the connective tissue cushioning our spinal vertebrae begins to dry out and become more brittle.

Spinal discs are made up of soft, jelly-like tissue encased in a harder shell. The tissue can rupture or crack, allowing the interior material to leak out. Sometimes this crack is caused by an injury like from lifting something heavy.

It can also come about from general wear and tear over time as the discs become more brittle and prone to cracking.

Risk factors

The following risk factors can significantly increase your chances of a herniated disc:

  • Family history of a herniated disc
  • Being overweight
  • Being older (discs become more rigid, dry, and weak with age)
  • Performing strenuous activities frequently (such as heavy weightlifting or manual labor)
  • Participating in sports or hobbies with repeated bending or lifting, such as weightlifting, dancing, and gardening
  • Smoking

If you or a loved one would like to learn how to reduce the risk of a herniated disc, speak with an experienced orthopedic doctor at Dignity Health.


While herniated discs become more common with age and are typically the result of accidents, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Doing regular exercise, and especially exercise to strengthen the muscles supporting the back and core, such as the abdominal muscles and obliques
  • Using proper form when weightlifting or lifting other heavy objects (following a common phrase you may have heard, to “lift with your legs, not your back”)
  • Warming up before activity and taking care not to overstretch or overexert your back

The information contained in this article is meant for educational purposes only and should not replace advice from your healthcare provider.