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What is a Herniated Disc?


Updated May 26, 2011

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What is a Herniated Disc?
Herniated disc is an injury that causes a lot of back pain. Herniated disk that affects the neck is called cervical disc herniation; herniation in the low back is called lumbar herniated disk; and herniation in the mid to upper back is called thoracic disc herniation.

Herniated disc is an injury in which one or more spinal discs rupture. In a herniated disc, all or part of the nucleus pulposus, the soft centrally located shock absorbing material, is forced out of the disc. A condition known as an annular tear provides the place of exit for the nucleus. An annular tear, as the name implies, is a tear in the tough, fibrous outer covering of the spinal disc.

Often, herniated nucleus pulposus material lands on a nerve root in the back of the spine. Nerve roots in back are responsible for your physical sensations. Needless to say, when the nucleus pulposus material touches, presses or otherwise comes into contact with a nerve root, most likely you’ll feel a lot of pain. You may get other symptoms such as numbness, weakness or tingling down a leg (sciatica) or arm, as well. When a herniated disc affects a spinal nerve root, the symptoms you get are called radiculopathy.

Disc herniation may occur in the low back, neck or upper back. Most herniated discs occur in the low back. In the low back, disc herniations often occur at L4-5 and/or L5-S1. In the neck, the location of a herniated disc is usually at C5-6 and/or C6-7. Disc herniations in the mid and upper back are rare, but they do occur.


Medline Plus. Herniated Disk. National Institute of Health. Accessed Aug 2010. http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/herniateddisk.html

Vaccaro, A. Spine: Core Knowledge in Orthopaedics. Elsevier Mosby. Philadelphia. 2005.

MD Consult. Herniated Intervertebral Disk. Elsivier. July 2010. Accessed August 2010. http://www.mdconsult.com/das/pdxmd/body/215814010-2/1040215818?type=med&eid=9-u1.0-_1_mt_1014932&printing=true#Contributors

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