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Disease Process
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Herniated Disc

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Disease Process

A disc is made up of a tough outer shell (the annulus) that surrounds the soft, jelly-like inside (the nucleus). Discs provide shock absorption and flexibility to your spine. Normal, everyday activities cause pressure on the disc and cause the outer surface to bulge slightly. Over time, or with an injury, the disc can become damaged. This can cause abnormally large bulging or even rupture. When this happens, it is called a herniated disc. Herniated discs are most commonly found in the lumbar (low) spine, but can also occur in the cervical (neck) and thoracic (middle) regions.


Some of the more common causes of herniated discs are:

  • Wear and tear over time.
  • Injury to the disc (or spine).

Risk factors that increase the chance of causing a herniated disc include:

  • Improper lifting
  • Smoking
  • Excessive body weight that places added stress on the disks (in the lower back)
  • Sudden pressure (which may be slight)
  • Repetitive strenuous activities

The following complaints may indicate that you have a herniated disc:

  • Pain or weakness in one leg or arm.
  • Tingling or numbness in one leg or arm.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control (See doctor immediately).
  • A burning pain centered in the middle of the neck or back.


A medical history, followed by a physical examination that includes reflex testing, observation to look for a change in the spinal curve, a straight leg raise test, and possibly x-rays, an MRI or a myelogram.

Current Treatment

Treatment for a herniated disc may include:

How Can Physical Therapy Help

The goals of physical therapy for a patient with a herniated disc include decreasing the pain, increasing function (return to as normal activity as possible), teaching patient how to manage or alleviate symptoms on their own and how to prevent further episodes of pain from occurring. The physical therapist may use some or all of the following during the course of treatment:

Patient Resources

Spine Universe: (photo of disc)
Family Doctor
North American Spine Society
American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons



Megan Hubbard, DPT © 2005   |  disclaimer   |