Herniated Disc

Dr. Vivek Loomba > Services > Pain conditions > Herniated Disc

Herniated Disc


A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, refers to a condition that affects the intervertebral discs in the spine. The spine is made up of a series of bones called vertebrae, and between each pair of vertebrae, there is a cushion-like structure called an intervertebral disc. These discs act as shock absorbers and provide flexibility to the spine.

A herniated disc occurs when the soft gel-like center (nucleus pulposus) of the disc protrudes through a crack or tear in the tough outer layer (annulus fibrosus) of the disc. This can happen due to age-related wear and tear, injury, or excessive strain on the spine.


The actual cause of a herniated disc is often multifactorial and can be influenced by various factors. Here are some common causes and contributing factors that can lead to a herniated disc –

  1. Age-related degeneration – The natural aging process is a significant contributing factor. As we age, the discs in our spine undergo degenerative changes, such as loss of water content and weakening of the disc walls. These changes make the discs more susceptible to herniation. 
  2. Wear and tear – Repetitive movements, heavy lifting, and activities that involve twisting or bending of the spine over time can increase the risk of a herniated disc. These activities can place excessive stress on the discs and gradually weaken them.
  3. Improper lifting techniques – Lifting heavy objects with improper technique, especially when combined with twisting or bending motions, can strain the discs and increase the risk of herniation.
  4. Traumatic injury – Sudden and traumatic injuries, such as a fall, car accident, or sports-related injury, can cause a herniated disc. The forceful impact or pressure on the spine can lead to a tear or rupture in the disc.
  5. Genetics – There is evidence to suggest that certain genetic factors may predispose individuals to developing herniated discs. Genetic variations can affect the structure and composition of the discs, making them more prone to herniation.
  6. Excessive body weight – Being overweight or obese puts extra stress on the spine, increasing the risk of disc degeneration and herniation.
  7. Occupation and lifestyle – Certain occupations that involve repetitive or heavy lifting, prolonged sitting, or frequent bending and twisting can contribute to the development of herniated discs. Similarly, a sedentary lifestyle with a lack of regular exercise and poor posture can also increase the risk.

These factors can contribute to the development of a herniated disc, not everyone with these risk factors will necessarily experience a herniation. Additionally, some people may develop herniated discs without any identifiable cause.

Preventing a herniated disc involves maintaining a healthy lifestyle, practicing proper lifting techniques, engaging in regular exercise to strengthen the back and core muscles, maintaining good posture, and avoiding excessive stress on the spine. If you experience symptoms suggestive of a herniated disc, it’s important to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment.


The symptoms of a herniated disc can vary depending on the location and severity of the herniation, as well as the affected nerves. Here are some common symptoms associated with a herniated disc –

  1. Pain – Pain is a primary symptom of a herniated disc. The pain can be localized to the area of the herniation, such as the neck or lower back, or it may radiate along the path of the affected nerve. The pain may be sharp, stabbing, or dull, and it can worsen with certain movements, such as bending, lifting, or twisting.
  2. Radiating pain – When a herniated disc compresses or irritates a spinal nerve, it can cause pain that radiates into other parts of the body. For example, a herniated disc in the neck (cervical spine) may cause pain that travels down the arm, while a herniation in the lower back (lumbar spine) can lead to pain that radiates down the leg (sciatica).
  3. Numbness and tingling – Compression of a nerve by a herniated disc can result in sensations of numbness, tingling, or a “pins and needles” feeling. These sensations often follow the path of the affected nerve and can be felt in the arms, hands, legs, or feet.
  4. Muscle weakness – If the nerve function is significantly compromised due to the compression, it can lead to muscle weakness. Weakness may occur in the muscles that are innervated by the affected nerve. For example, a herniated disc in the lumbar spine can cause weakness in the leg muscles, affecting mobility and balance.
  5. Changes in reflexes – In some cases, a herniated disc can affect the reflexes associated with the affected nerves. Reflexes may be diminished or exaggerated when the doctor tests them during a physical examination.
  6. Loss of sensation – Severe compression or damage to the nerves may result in the loss of sensation in the affected area. This can include decreased sensitivity to touch, temperature, or pain.

Not all herniated discs cause symptoms, and some people may have a herniated disc without experiencing any pain or discomfort. The presence and severity of symptoms can vary widely among individuals.

If you are experiencing persistent or worsening symptoms that may be associated with a herniated disc, it’s advisable to consult with a healthcare professional for an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment options.

Diagnosis and Tests

To diagnose a herniated disc, healthcare professionals may utilize a combination of clinical evaluations and diagnostic tests. Here are some common diagnostic tests that can help confirm the presence of a herniated disc and determine its location and severity –

1. Medical history and physical examination – The doctor will begin by taking a detailed medical history, including a discussion of your symptoms, their duration, and any factors that worsen or alleviate them. A physical examination will be conducted to assess your range of motion, muscle strength, reflexes, and areas of tenderness.

2. Imaging tests

  • MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) – MRI is the most commonly used imaging test to diagnose a herniated disc. It produces detailed images of the soft tissues in the spine, allowing the doctor to visualize the discs, nerves, and surrounding structures. MRI can provide information about the size, location, and extent of the disc herniation.
  • CT (Computed Tomography) scan – CT scans may be used in certain cases, particularly if MRI is not feasible or when additional information about the bony structures is needed. CT scans provide detailed cross-sectional images of the spine and can help identify bony abnormalities and the presence of a herniated disc.
  • Myelogram – A myelogram involves injecting a contrast dye into the spinal canal to enhance visibility during an X-ray or CT scan. This test can help identify the presence and location of a herniated disc and assess if it is compressing the spinal cord or nerves.

3. Electromyogram (EMG) – EMG is a test that evaluates the electrical activity in the muscles and the functioning of the nerves. It can help determine if muscle weakness or numbness is due to nerve compression caused by a herniated disc.

The combination of the medical history, physical examination, and imaging tests can help healthcare professionals make an accurate diagnosis of a herniated disc and guide appropriate treatment options.

It’s essential to consult with a healthcare professional who specializes in spine-related conditions for a comprehensive evaluation and to determine the most suitable diagnostic tests for your specific situation.


The treatment of a herniated disc depends on the severity of symptoms, the impact on daily life, and individual factors. The majority of herniated disc cases can be effectively managed with conservative (non-surgical) treatments. Here are some common treatment options –

1. Medications

  • Pain relievers – Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, can help reduce pain and inflammation.
  • Muscle relaxants – These medications can help relieve muscle spasms that may accompany a herniated disc.
  • Oral corticosteroids – In some cases, a short course of oral steroids may be prescribed to reduce inflammation and alleviate symptoms.

2. Physical therapy

  • Physical therapy can play a crucial role in the treatment of a herniated disc. A physical therapist can provide exercises and techniques to improve flexibility, strengthen the surrounding muscles, and promote proper body mechanics to relieve pressure on the affected disc.
  • Modalities such as heat or cold therapy, ultrasound, or electrical stimulation may be used to alleviate pain and reduce muscle spasms.

3. Epidural steroid injections

  • In cases where the pain is severe or persistent, an epidural steroid injection may be considered. 
  • This involves injecting a corticosteroid medication into the space around the spinal nerves to reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. The effects of the injection are typically temporary and may need to be repeated.

4. Lifestyle modifications

  • To adopt healthy lifestyle habits to support the healing process and reduce the risk of further disc herniation.
  • It includes maintaining a healthy weight, practicing good posture, using proper body mechanics during activities, and avoiding activities that worsen symptoms.

5. Alternative therapies

  • Some individuals find relief from complementary approaches such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, or massage therapy. These therapies may help reduce pain and improve mobility, but their effectiveness can vary among individuals.

6. Surgery 

  • Surgery is generally considered only when conservative treatments have failed to provide relief, and severe symptoms persist or worsen. 
  • Surgical options may include discectomy (removal of the herniated portion of the disc) or spinal fusion (joining two vertebrae together to stabilize the spine). Surgery aims to alleviate pressure on the affected nerve and stabilize the spine.

The treatment approach for a herniated disc should be individualized based on the specific circumstances and symptoms of each person. It is necessary to consult with a healthcare professional, such as a spine specialist or orthopedic surgeon, to discuss the most appropriate treatment options for your condition.


The outlook for a herniated disc varies depending on factors such as the severity of the herniation, the effectiveness of treatment, and individual factors. Many individuals experience relief from symptoms and improvement in functionalities with conservative treatments. With proper management and adherence to healthy lifestyle habits, most people can lead active lives by managing symptoms effectively.

Stay active by following your healthcare provider’s recommendations to lose the stiffened muscles. A gentle movement of the body such as stretching coupled with an over-the-counter pain reliever can help in pain recovery. Prolonged sitting or lying in bed will in fact cause more stiffening of muscles leading to severe pain. It is recommended to consult with a healthcare professional to receive an accurate diagnosis by developing a tailored treatment plan for a herniated disc.