What is a herniated disc?

Your backbone, or spine, is made up of 26 bones called vertebrae. In between them are soft discs filled with a jelly-like substance. These discs cushion the vertebrae and keep them in place. As you age, the discs break down or degenerate. As they do, they lose their cushioning ability, which can lead to pain if the back is stressed.

A herniated disc is a disc that has ruptured. This allows the jelly-like center of the disc to leak, irritating the nearby nerves. A herniated disc can occur anywhere along your spinal column. If the bulging disc is pressing on a nerve, it will send shooting pains to the area connected to that nerve. A herniated disc in the upper or lower spine could weaken muscle groups in the arm or leg. The upper back discs of the thoracic spine could cause problems to the bladder or bowel, or shooting pains toward one side of the body.

Your doctor will diagnose a herniated disc with a physical exam and, sometimes, with imaging tests. Most people recover with treatment, which includes rest, anti-inflammatory and pain medicines, physical therapy and sometimes surgery.

Learn more about brain and spine neurological conditions at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.


Most herniated discs occur in the lower back (lumbar herniated discs), but they can also occur in the neck (cervical herniated discs).

When a herniated disc presses on nerve roots, it can cause pain, numbness and weakness in the area of the body where that nerve travels. A herniated disc often disproportionately causes symptoms on one side of the body.

Lumbar herniated disc

A herniated disc in the lower back can cause pain and numbness in the buttock and down a leg. This is what’s called “sciatica,” the most common symptom of a herniated disc in the lower back.

However, if a herniated disc isn’t pressing on a nerve, you might not experience any pain at all. If you have weakness or numbness in both legs along with a loss of bladder and/or bowel control, seek medical care right away, as it could be a sign of a rare but serious issue called cauda equina syndrome.

Cervical herniated disc

Herniated discs in the neck (or cervical spine) can cause pain, numbness or weakness in the neck, shoulders, chest, arms and hands.

In some cases, a very large herniated disc in the neck could cause weakness or tingling that affects other parts of the body, including the legs.


Herniated discs are typically caused by wear and tear of the disc. As we age, the discs in our spines lose some of the fluid that helps them stay flexible.

A herniated disc also can be caused by an injury to the spine, causing tiny tears or cracks in the outer layer (annulus or capsule) of the disc. The jellylike material inside the disc may be forced out of the disc through those tears or cracks, causing the disc to bulge, rupture or break into fragments.

Herniated discs also are more common in people who smoke.

Diagnosing herniated discs

Following a thorough history, physical and neurological exam, Ohio State Spine Care specialists may recommend imaging tests, including:

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Electromyography study (EMG), a test that measures the electrical activity of muscles
  • Nerve block to identify the specific nerve irritated by a herniated disc

Herniated disc treatment

Ohio State offers treatments ranging from physical therapy to the most complex neck and spine surgeries. Because 90% of herniated discs get better on their own, our specialists explore other options before recommending surgery.

Our spine specialists offer multiple options to increase mobility and reduce pain:

Physical therapy

One of Ohio State’s strengths is our physical therapy program, with therapists who specialize in complex, degenerative spine conditions. Following an examination of posture, neck and back mobility, strength and flexibility, our physical therapists customize a plan for you. We take into account any impairments or functional limitations you have. Typically, you’ll work one-on-one with a therapist on pain-relieving movement strategies and on improvements in strength and flexibility.

Additional nonsurgical treatments

  • Education on neck and back care, and recommendations for specific needs (such as job demands, recreational activities, home activities)
  • Real-time ultrasound imaging (RUSI) of movement in the spine area to re-train the deep stabilizing musculature of your spine (a highly researched, evidence-based intervention)
  • Anti-inflammatory medications
  • Injection around the nerve that’s being irritated by the disc
  • Nerve blocks to relieve pain
  • Weight loss guidance emphasizing healthier eating and exercise to ease pressure on the spine
  • Pilates, yoga and aquatic therapy to strengthen back muscles
  • Acupuncture (provided at Ohio State Spine Care) or dry needling for pain control through Ohio State’s Center for Integrative Medicine

Herniated disc surgery

We perform minimally invasive surgery (using small incisions, working through a tube) only if the disc is causing severe weakness, pain that does not improve over time or loss of function or mobility.

Why choose Ohio State for herniated discs?

Ohio State spine surgeon, Elizabeth Yu, MD, believes in maximizing non-operative treatment first before considering surgery.


Ohio State conducts innovative research in the laboratory, as well as through clinical trials.

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Areas of focus include:

Biomechanical Testing: We are doing biomechanical testing to assess the spine before and after surgery. A specialized vest helps us assess your spinal movement and measure the effectiveness of surgery. It ultimately may provide valuable information about which treatment methods will best increase mobility and function of the spine.

Back Pain Consortium: We are members of the International Consortium for Health Outcomes Measurement (ICHOM). Membership in this elite organization allows us to engage with other top U.S. medical centers in global research studies on back pain. As we measure our results against established international standards, we share best practices and elevate our standard of care.

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Our Spine Providers

Additional Information

Please obtain a physician referral before scheduling with our Spine Center and request previous imaging studies (e.g., MRI, CT, X-ray) on a CD from the place where your tests were performed. Please bring to your appointment these and other test results related to your back (e.g., EMGs, bone density reports, ultrasound reports) from your doctor(s).

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