Herniated Disc and Lumbar Disc Disease

At every twist and turn, pain from a herniated disc can derail your plans, keeping you from doing what you love. Ready to end the pain from a ruptured disc? Trust Hoag. At Hoag Spine Institute, our commitment to conservative, personalized treatment of spinal issues is all about you. In your corner: a fellowship-trained team that includes rehabilitation specialists, physical and occupational therapists, dietitians and preeminent, board-certified neurosurgeons. So don't get sidelined by lumbar disc disease. Hoag Spine Institute is here to help you heal.

Need Herniated Disc Treatment? Orange County Trusts Hoag for Next-Generation Spine Care.

Back pain caused by a herniated disc can be intense. It can keep you from working, exercising, sleeping and doing the things you once loved. It can make it seem like all you can do is feel pain for another day.

Those in need of treatment for a ruptured disc in Orange County have powerful allies at the Hoag Spine Institute. Our fellowship-trained team includes spine-imaging experts, physical therapists, pain-management specialists and spinal surgeons, all versed in the latest minimally-invasive techniques and procedures and working as one for your recovery. Our goal: to help every patient be free of the often-debilitating pain of herniated discs.

Read on for what you need to know about herniated discs, including symptoms, key definitions and tips for protecting your back. And, if you need treatment for a ruptured disc in Orange County, for compassionate, patient-focused spine care near you, there’s just no place like Hoag. Contact us today at 949-764-1411 or through our online form.

What is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc (also called a bulging disc, disc herniation, a slipped disc or a ruptured disc) occurs when one of the spinal discs — the rubbery pads between each vertebrae that cushion the spinal column while allowing the back to be very flexible — becomes damaged to the point the soft, inner disc material begins to bulge through a tear in the disc’s strong outer shell.

A herniated disc can put pressure on the spinal cord or spinal nerve roots. Depending on how extensive the herniation is and where it occurs in the disc, that can result in numbness, loss of muscle strength and back or neck pain that may be severe.

The Anatomy of the Spine

The spine, also known as the backbone or spinal column, is a complex structure that provides strong, flexible support for the body and protection for the spinal cord — the long, thin bundle of nerve fibers that runs through a hollow space in the center of the spinal column called the spinal canal.

The 33 bones that make up the spine are called vertebrae. Medically, the vertebrae are divided into five distinct regions:

  • The cervical spine: the seven vertebrae just below the skull that make up the neck, known as C1 through C7.
  • The thoracic spine: the 12 vertebrae of the upper back, known as T1 through T12.
  • The lumbar spine: the five vertebrae in the lower back, known as L1 through L5.
  • The sacrum: located at the base of the spine and forming part of the pelvis, the sacrum is made up of five sacral vertebrae (S1 to S5) that normally fuse together and become one in the womb. Together, the pelvis and sacrum form a ringlike structure called the pelvic girdle.
  • The coccyx: also called the tailbone, this is a stack of four fused vertebrae at the very end of the spine.
The Spinal Discs

Between each of the non-fused vertebrae in the spine are the spinal discs (also called intervertebral discs), which are flat, round and rubbery.

These discs have a soft inner material called the nucleus pulposus and a tough outer layer, the annulus fibrosus. The discs act as natural shock absorbers, preventing the vertebrae from rubbing against each other, absorbing impacts that might damage the spinal cord and providing flexibility to the spine.

If a tear develops in the annulus fibrosus due to injury or degeneration, the nucleus pulposus can begin to bulge through the tear, resulting in what’s known as a herniated disc or bulging disc.

A herniated lumbar disc can cause severe pain that radiates out from the lower back into the legs, while a herniated disc in the cervical spine causes pain and discomfort in the neck that can sometimes spread to the shoulders and arms.

Visit here to read more from Hoag about neck pain.

What Can Cause a Herniated Disc?

Disc herniation is usually caused by damage or degeneration that causes a tear in the outer shell of a spinal disc, allowing the soft, inner material inside it to bulge through.

Damage that can lead to a herniated disc can be caused by a variety of factors. These factors may include:

Degenerative Disc Disease

As we age, the discs in our spine naturally lose water and become less flexible than they were at a younger age. Disc degeneration can make them weaker and more prone to tearing when put under stress. That can lead to a slipped disc, especially if a person has other contributing factors like obesity or work-related injuries of the spine. In severe cases involving degenerative disc disease, even minor strain or movements can then cause the gel-like material inside a disc to bulge out. According to the National Institutes of Health, degenerative disc disease is the most common cause of a herniated disc.

Improper Lifting of Heavy Objects

Lifting heavy objects at work or while exercising, especially when done without proper form or protective equipment like a back-stabilizing lifting belt, can put immense strain on your spine. That’s especially true when a person lifts while bending forward or twists the spine while lifting, which can cause tears in the outer wall of a spinal disc. That can lead to a herniated disc.

Repetitive Stress Injuries

Having a job or sport you play that requires repeated bending, twisting or vibration of the spine can gradually weaken and damage the spinal discs and surrounding structures. Over time, this wear and tear can lead to a herniated disc.

Traumatic Injuries

Vehicle accidents, falls or sudden and violent impacts like those experienced while playing full-contact sports or during a physical assault can injure the discs in the spine, causing damage that can lead to a herniated disc. Even a seemingly minor traumatic event like a slight sports injury or the jolt from a vehicle accident can contribute to a herniated disc, especially if left untreated

Other Potential Causes of a Herniated Disc
  • Genetics: Some people are genetically predisposed to have weaker spinal discs, increasing the risk of herniation.
  • Smoking: Smoking reduces blood flow to the discs, which can interfere with their ability to heal from damage that can can eventually cause a herniated disc.
  • Obesity: Excess weight puts extra stress on the spine, which can increase the risk of having disc-related problems, especially if a person is required to lift heavy objects or experiences or traumatic injury involving the spine.
  • Certain Inherited Connective Tissue Disorders: Certain conditions like Marfan syndrome can weaken the connective tissues that support the spine and discs, making them more likely to experience a herniated disc. Visit here to learn more about Hoag’s unique Marfan and Associated Conditions Clinic, Orange County’s lifeline for those with rare, inherited connective tissue diseases.

What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disc?

The symptoms of a herniated disc can vary depending on the location of the herniated disc and how severe the herniation is. However, some of the most common symptoms of a herniated disc include:


Extremity pain is by far the most common symptom experienced by those with a herniated disc. It can range from a dull ache to a sharp, shooting pain that can be debilitating.

Depending on where the herniation is, the pain related to a herniated disc can be centered in several locations, including the lower back, middle back muscles, buttocks, thighs, calves, neck, shoulder blades, shoulders or lower extremities.

Because any strain on the body can cause a herniated disc to bulge into and irritate nearby nerves, the pain associated with a herniated disc can worsen during certain movements, like bending, lifting things or sitting for long periods, or while coughing, sneezing or walking.

One common, back pain-related condition that can occur due to a bulging disc in the lower back (the lumbar spine) is sciatica. In those with sciatica, pain usually radiates from the lower back, through the buttocks and down the back of one leg. Visit here to learn more from Hoag about sciatica.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

While rare, cauda equina syndrome is a serious medical condition that can occur when the bundle of nerves at the end of the spinal cord, the cauda equina, becomes compressed. One issue that can compress the cauda equina is a herniated disc in the lower back.

Because the nerves of the cauda equina help control bladder and bowel function and help transmit nerve impulses that allow for movement and sensation in the legs, compression can lead to a number of serious issues, including:

  • Loss of bladder or bowel control.
  • Severe numbness or weakness in the legs.
  • Saddle anesthesia, which is numbness of the genitals and inner thighs.

Only a small percentage of patients with a herniated disc will experience compression of the cauda equina. However, if you develop any of these symptoms during an episode involving pain in the lower back, please seek medical help immediately.

Other Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

In severe cases, a herniated disc can cause:

  • Numbness or tingling: This can affect the same areas as the pain, and it can be constant or come and go.
  • Muscle weakness: A herniated disc can sometimes cause issues like leg weakness, which can make it difficult to walk, climb stairs or lift objects.
  • Permanent weakness or paralysis: Especially without medical treatment, severe disc herniation can cause long-term damage to the spinal cord or nerve roots. In rare cases, that can potentially result in permanent paralysis or muscle weakness.
  • Bladder or bowel dysfunction: While rare, a herniated disc can cause problems with bladder or bowel control, which may be a sign of a serious condition called cauda equina syndrome.
  • Abnormal muscle reflexes: In serious cases, a herniated disc can affect a person’s muscle reflexes. This abnormality is usually only detected by a doctor or physical therapist during a physical exam.

What are the Risk Factors for Experiencing a Herniated Disc?

There are a number of factors that can put you at greater risk of experiencing herniated discs. These factors may include:

  • Having a job or hobby that requires you to repeatedly bend and twist, or that subjects you to prolonged vibration, especially if you also have to lift heavy objects.
  • Playing full-contact sports like American football, rugby or wrestling, or participating in sports with a higher likelihood of experiencing a traumatic injury to the spine, like mountain biking or automobile racing.
  • Using improper form while weightlifting for exercise.
  • Smoking tobacco.
  • Being obese, as excess weight can put more pressure on the spinal discs.
  • Having a personal history of herniated discs, as a previous medical history of ruptured discs makes it more likely you will experience another.
  • Genetics, such as having a family history of herniated discs or low back pain can make it more likely that a person will experience a ruptured disc themselves. Certain inherited connective tissue diseases, including Marfan Syndrome, can also make a person more likely to experience a herniated disc because of the way these conditions can weaken the connective tissues that support and give stability to the spine.

Are there Any Ways to Reduce My Risk of a Herniated Disc?

While there’s no known way to definitely prevent a herniated disc, there are certain steps you can take to potentially reduce your risk.

These steps may include:

  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Use proper form and protective equipment when lifting heavy objects.
  • Maintain proper posture.
  • Don’t smoke tobacco.
  • If you injure your back, or experience sharp pain in the spine while lifting, twisting or bending, stop what you’re doing and take the time you need to heal to avoid aggravating disc damage that could potentially turn into herniated discs. Bed rest and over-the-counter pain medication can provide significant pain relief in many cases. If symptoms persist or get worse, see your doctor for evaluation.
  • After a back injury, be sure to follow your physician’s directions exactly and attend any required physical therapy appointments.

Need a Herniated Disc Specialist in Orange County? For Advanced Treatment of the Spine, There’s No Place Like Hoag.

At the Hoag Spine Institute, we’re not about cookie-cutter solutions that don’t get to the root of your back pain. Our commitment to the spine health of Orange County residents means we’re committed to using all our skill and advanced technologies to find the individualized, personalized treatment plan that’s right for you, to end your pain for good.

At Hoag in Orange County, we’re dedicated to using nonsurgical treatment options for back pain and herniated discs, including epidural steroid injection and our comprehensive physical therapy programs. If more conservative treatments don’t ease pain and get you back in the game, Hoag is also your home for next-generation spinal surgery, including robotic-assisted procedures and minimally invasive surgery techniques, for less downtime and pain.

Do you need a herniated disc specialist in Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Aliso Viejo, Irvine or other communities across Orange County? Then you deserve next-generation techniques, and a fellowship-trained team of spine experts that is committed to helping you heal.

You don’t have to live with the pain of a ruptured disc. Not when the Hoag Spine Institute is nearby. To learn more about Hoag Spine Institute, or to schedule a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation with a Hoag spine care specialist, please contact us today at 949-764-1411 or through our online form.

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