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Herniated Disc

A herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc, is when a fragment of cartilage in your spine presses on the spinal cord or nearby nerves.

What is a herniated disc?

Your spine is made up of bones (vertebrae), separated by spongy discs. A herniated disc is when one of these discs slips out of place. This happens when the disc starts to wear away, causing it to bulge and even split. This presses on the spinal cord or nerves, causing pain. This is also known as ‘Sciatica’ when the disc presses on nerves in the lower back and produces leg pain.

What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?

Not all herniated discs cause symptoms. Many people only know they have a herniated disc after having a MRI scan for something else.

Symptoms of a herniated disc include:

  • Arm or leg pain – herniated discs in your lower back cause pain in your buttocks, thigh and calf; herniated discs in your neck cause pain down the shoulder and arm
  • Numbness or tingling in your shoulders, back, arms, hands, legs or feet
  • Neck pain
  • Difficulty bending or straightening your back
  • Muscle weakness
  • Increased pain when sitting, standing or walking

What causes a herniated disc?

Common risk factors and causes of a herniated disc include:

  • Age – you’re more likely to have a herniated disc as you get older as the ligaments weaken
  • Injury or sprain– if your spine is injured or sprained, this increases the risk
  • Your genes – a herniated disc can run in families

How is a herniated disc diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your medical history to check for contributing factors such as aging, exercising too hard and heavy lifting. They will also carry out a physical examination while they look for problems in movement and pain as well as weakness.

Your doctor may also recommend a MRI scan to try to get a better idea of whether you have a herniated disc or another condition.

How is a herniated disc treated?

Your doctor will recommend some (or all) of the following:

  • Physical therapy (this usually means you meet with a physical therapist to learn some gentle movement exercises, and can then continue on your own at home to help you get better faster and increase your activity level)
  • Pain killers to help you to keep moving
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs and medications
  • Rest

If your herniated disc be­­­­comes very painful and non-surgical treatments don’t work, you may need surgery. The disc is usually removed with a procedure called a discectomy. In the lower back surgery is all that is needed, but in some cases your specialist may decide to replace the disc with a cage which will fuse with the vertebra over time.

However, in 99% of cases, your herniated disc will heal within 6 weeks without need for further treatment.

When a discectomy is performed in the neck it is usually accompanied by insertion of a cage or artificial disc replacement. Further metalwork may need to be inserted to add more stability.

If you’re unsure what treatment you should go for, or the above treatments don’t work for you, our team of expert specialists are here to help.

This content has been checked and approved by

Dr John Outhwaite  ›

Dr Outhwaite is part of the team of skilled consultants and physicians at The London Orthopaedic Clinic, based at King Edward VII’s Hospital.

Find your specialist in herniated discs at King Edward VII's Hospital

If you suspect you have a herniated disc and you’re seeking an expert opinion, you can find the UK’s leading rheumatology specialists here at King Edward VII’s Hospital. Our consultants are hand-picked for you, making it easy to access the best possible care.

Dr John Outhwaite  ›
Special interests include:
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