What is a Herniated Disk?

Sometimes called a slipped disc, ruptured disk, protruded disk or torn disk,  a herniated disk is where the inner material of the disk between your vertebrae extrudes outside its normal limits. It can press on a nerve and cause pain.

Between 60% and 80% of people will experience low back pain at some point in their lives. A high percentage of people will have low back and leg pain caused by a herniated disk.

Anatomy

Your spine is made up of 24 bones, called vertebrae, that are stacked on top of one another. These bones connect to create a canal that protects the spinal cord.

Five vertebrae make up the lower back. This area is called your lumbar spine.

Parts of the lumbar spine.

Other parts of your spine include:

Spinal cord and nerves. These “electrical cables” travel through the spinal canal carrying messages between your brain and muscles.

Intervertebral disks. In between your vertebrae are flexible intervertebral disks. They act as shock absorbers when your walk or run.

Intervertebral disks are flat and round, and about a half inch thick. They are made up of two components:

Healthy intervertebral disk (cross-section view).
  • Annulus fibrosus. This is the tough, flexible outer ring of the disk.
  • Nucleus pulposus. This is the soft, jelly-like center of the disk.
A disk begins to herniate when its jelly-like nucleus pushes against its outer ring due to wear and tear or a sudden injury. This pressure against the outer ring may cause lower back pain.

A herniated disk (side view and cross-section).

If the disk is very worn or injured, the jelly-like center may squeeze all the way through.

Once the nucleus breaks — or herniates — through the outer ring, pain in the lower back may improve. Sciatic leg pain, however, increases. This is because the jelly-like material inflames the spinal nerves. It may also put pressure on these sensitive spinal nerves, causing pain, numbness, or weakness in one or both legs.

Ways to confirm a herniated disk

The best way is through a CT scan or MRI. Consult an orthopedic surgeon or neurosurgeon

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