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Disc-function: Dealing with a herniated disc

Man and woman enjoying a walk outdoors - What is a herniated disc?
A herniated disk can cause back or neck pain; numbness, tingling or weakness; and pain radiating up and down the legs or arms.

Spinal discs, which sit between vertebrae and act as shock absorbers in the back, are kind of like jelly donuts. They “have a tough, fibrous outer layer and a gel-filled center,” said Dustin Hess, a Marshfield Clinic Health System certified physician assistant in orthopedic surgery. There are 23 discs that cushion the vertebrae from head to pelvis.

A disc herniates when a weak point in its exterior ruptures, causing the gel center to push through the tough outer layer. Unfortunately, the comparison between spinal discs and jelly donuts is strictly visual. When filling leaks out of a jelly donut, the result is delicious. However, when gel leaks from a spinal disc and pushes on the nerves, the result is pain.

“A herniated disc leads to pressure on, and irritation of, the nearby nerves that exit the spine and supply the rest of the body,” Hess said.

Uncomfortably numb

“The symptoms associated with a herniated disc depend on the location of the herniation,” said Dr. Nikhil Shelke, Marshfield Clinic Health System spinal orthopedic surgeon. “So, with a herniated disc in the low back, which is the most common location, you’ll often experience symptoms in the buttocks and legs. If you have a herniated disc in the neck, you’re more likely to feel symptoms in your arms and shoulders.”

Symptoms include back or neck pain; numbness, tingling or weakness in the body parts affected by the herniation; and pain radiating up and down the legs or arms. Dr. Shelke said that if you have pain radiating in river-like patterns down your legs, be sure to pay attention to where the pain ends. “That description can help your provider pinpoint where the herniation may be,” he said.

What causes a herniated disc?

Hess said as people age, discs become less flexible. As discs become less flexible, they are more likely to rupture. Lifting with poor techniquebeing overweight and repetitive stress also can cause herniation.

“Anyone can get a herniated disc, from manual laborers to those in a desk job,” explained Dr. Shelke. “Most often, they are caused by repeated strenuous activity or repeated stress in an abnormal fashion.”


Herniated discs often will resolve on their own within 6-12 weeks, and surgery is rarely needed.

“Initially, conservative treatment is best,” Hess said.

Conservative treatment includes controlling pain with over-the-counter medication and physical therapy. Dr. Shelke said that because herniated discs often occur because of an abnormal function of the muscles, it is important to strengthen the legs and lower back. Physical therapy can help to learn and practice proper movements.

Although herniated discs often resolve themselves, Dr. Shelke stressed that it is still important that you see your doctor if you have any new pain that is more severe than what is normal for you.

Make an appointment with your doctor. 

5 responses to “Disc-function: Dealing with a herniated disc”

  1. Valarie Fane

    Why don't doctors tell patients during middle age (at least) about possibility of shrinking & how it may be avoided kr addressed? Why isn't this a normal visit intervention?

    1. Jordan Simonson

      Hi Valarie, Good question. There are three main reasons why people shrink as they age (see this blog post here: https://shine365.marshfieldclinic.org/bone-joint/why-you-shrink-as-you-age/). While providers may not explain certain lifestyle choices impact shrinking, they do often talk about the different lifestyle choices that impact shrinking. For example, osteoporosis is one cause of shrinking. Osteoporosis is best prevented in children and young adults. During this time, providers often encourage getting ample vitamin D and calcium and living an active lifestyle when younger. I hope this helps. -Thanks, Jordan

  2. Tom

    Hi Debbie,
    This is a couple years old so you may or may not ever read it. Anyway my wife gave me an inversion table for
    Christmas a few years ago ($100 from Fleet). It's been outstanding. My L3 and L5 were seen as bulging and using
    the inversion for a couple minutes every morning makes a big difference. I also do 5-10 minutes of stretches.

  3. Debbie

    My left hip keeps popping in and out…Will the inversionhelp me?

    1. Jacob Zipperer

      Hi Debbie,

      Thank you for the reaching out. We strongly recommend talking to your doctor about your hip and possible treatments. They are most aware of your current condition and previous medical history and can best advise you.

      If you are a Marshfield Clinic patient, you can message your provider directly through My Marshfield Clinic: marshfieldclinic.org/mymarshfieldClinic


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