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Herniated disc

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A herniated disc is one of the usual cause for neck, leg and/or back pain. It generally occurs in the lower region of the spine but also in the cervical and thoracic spine.

The spine is comprised of a series of vertebrae that are stacked to form the spinal column. Amidst the vertebrae are round, flat cushioning pads called as intervertebral discs that function as shock absorbers. In every disc, there is a soft, gel-like middle known as the nucleus pulposus that is bordered by a sturdy, fibrous exterior layer called annulus.

Herniation arises if the exterior part of the disc or annulus weakens and ruptures.

A herniated disc occurs if pressure from the vertebrae below and above drives some or the entire nucleus pulposus via a weak or rupture region of the annulus. This presses on the nerves close to the disc, triggering pain.


A herniated disc does not often trigger any symptoms. The indications that might arise if the low back is affected include:

  • Radiating pain to the legs, buttocks and feet (sciatica)
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness or weakness in the feet or legs

If the neck is affected, the symptoms that might arise include:

  • Pain or discomfort near or over the shoulder blade
  • Neck muscle spasms
  • Pain radiating to the arm, shoulder and oftentimes to the hands and fingers
  • Neck pain especially in the rear and sides of the neck

What are the causes?

Herniation arises if the exterior part of the disc or annulus weakens and ruptures. Various factors can add up to this deterioration such as:

  • Excessive weight
  • Aging
  • Abrupt strain from incorrect lifting or violent twisting movements

Management of a herniated disc

In most cases of herniated disc, it settles on its own or with conservative treatment which includes adequate rest, anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy.

Some individuals achieve relief for the pain and muscles spasms from the application of ice packs or moist heat. If the conservative measures could not effectively manage the symptoms, spinal injections or even surgery might be required.

  • Medications – non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are given to alleviate the inflammation, pain and stiffness to allow increased mobility. Muscle relaxants and other forms of analgesics can be given to reduce the discomfort linked with significant pain or muscles spasms in the initial phase of treatment.
  • Physical therapy – the objective of physical therapy is to improve core strength, endurance and flexibility to allow the individual to engage in normal activities
  • Spinal injections – cortisone is injected into the lower back to minimize the swelling and inflammation of the nerve roots
  • Surgery – this is required for individuals who do not respond to conservative measures, symptoms that worsen increasingly or there is evident progressive neurologic decline. The commonly used surgical procedures include laminectomy, microdiscectomy or foraminotomy.

Disclaimer / More Information

The information posted on this page on a herniated disc is for learning and educational purposes only. To learn to manage a herniated disc, register for first aid training at one of our training centers located throughout Canada. The training centers are in Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Kelowna, Saskatoon, Victoria, Surrey, Mississauga, Winnipeg, Red Deer, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax.

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