What Is Disc Herniation and What Are the Causes?

Research has shown that over eighty percent of the human population will experience back pain at some point in their lives. Often the causes are mechanical and are not medically ominous. Your back pain could be a result of muscle spasms, fatigue, disc herniation, or microtrauma during exercise and weight lifting. However, it is important to note that back pain could be a symptom of conditions that require urgent medical attention such as cancer and infections. It is therefore important to be reviewed by a physician if you have back pain to rule out serious conditions.


Discs, alongside vertebrae (bones), and ligaments form the vertebral column, which protects the spinal cord. The discs, which are located between the bones, act as shock absorbers since they are not rigid. As people age, the discs are calcified and become brittle. They no longer effectively absorb and transmit forces thus they are more likely to be displaced. When a disc has been pushed from its normal position it is said to have herniated. As a result, back pain increases in frequency as you age. Disc herniation causes pain. If the disc pushes against the spinal cord, you may develop numbness and muscle weakness especially in the arms or legs.

There are a variety of treatments available for disc herniation. The choice of treatment will depend on severity of symptoms, doctor’s recommendation, and patient preference. In most cases, the initial treatment is conservative and nonsurgical.  Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs are used to manage the pain. Physiotherapy will also help reduce pain and improve function. If conservative interventions fail, surgical treatment should be considered. Other indications for surgery include pain that significantly limits function and progressive muscle weakness or loss of sensation.

If left untreated, the presenting symptoms are likely to worsen with time to the extent that one is unable to use their arms or legs. Loss of bladder control is possible especially for if the herniating disc is in the lower back. Timely and appropriate intervention is crucial in order to improve quality of life and avoid irreversible damage.

The best treatment is always prevention. Exercising the back muscles and building a strong core helps stabilize the back and prevent disc herniation. Using ergonomic furniture at home or school helps protect your back from excess strain that may progressively lead to disc rupture. Always sleep and sit in the right posture. Maintain appropriate weight for height to avoid placing excess constant pressure on the discs.

Herniations commonly occur in the lower back but some people do develop herniated discs in the neck and upper back. Typical symptoms include back pain, tingling sensations or numbness if the herniated disc is compressing nerves, pain in the arms or legs, or muscle weakness in the arms and legs. Some people with disc herniation are asymptomatic and the herniation is an incidental finding on imaging.

Causes of Disc Herniation

A single incident of trauma or strain can cause a disc herniation. This is commonly seen in young people involved in sports like weight lifting. Typically, though, what causes disc herniation is the degeneration that comes with age. The ligaments that help hold the discs in place weaken and minor strains or twisting motions that are usually harmless cause disc rupture. Connective tissue disorders such as Marfan Syndrome predisposes one to disc herniation. People who are overweight or involved in physically demanding jobs like load carrying are at an increased risk of herniating a disc.

Disc Rupture

Disc herniations can be quite painful and distressing. They occur commonly in old age but there are plenty of preventative measures that everyone can take to reduce the risk of rupturing a disc. If you already have disc herniation, there are conservative and surgical treatment options that will help you get back to your normal life.