The bones (vertebrae) that form the spine in the back are cushioned by small, spongy discs. When these discs are healthy, they act as shock absorbers for the spine and keep the spine flexible, but when a disc is damaged, it may bulge or break open. This is called a herniated disc.
Herniated discs can happen in any part of your spine, but most herniated discs affect the lower back, or lumbar spine. Sometimes this will also happen in the neck, or cervical spine and, more rarely, in the upper back, or thoracic spine.
A herniated disc may be caused by wear and tear of the disc. With aging discs dry out and do not remain as flexible. Also, if you suffer any injury to your spine, this may cause tiny tears or cracks in the hard outer layer of the disc. When this happens, the gel inside the disc can be forced out through the tears or cracks in the outer layer of the disc. This causes the disc to bulge, break open, or break into pieces.
When a herniated disc presses on nerve roots, it can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the area of the body where the nerve travels. A herniated disc in the lower back can cause pain and numbness in the buttock and down the leg. This is called sciatica and is the most common symptom of a herniated disc in the low back. If a herniated disc is not pressing on a nerve, you may have a backache or no pain at all.
Your doctor may diagnose a herniated disc by asking questions about your symptoms and examining you. If your symptoms clearly point to a herniated disc, you may not need further testing. Sometimes, a doctor will do tests such as an MRI or a CT scan to confirm a herniated disc or rule out other health problems.
Physical therapy can help to remedy a herniated disc by offering certain exercises to regain strength. Also, your therapist can use heat and/or ice to help alleviate the discomfort that this causes. It is important to stay active so that your muscles do not weaken.