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What Is a Herniated Disk?

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

A herniated disk is a disk that ruptures. This allows the jelly-like center of the disk to leak, irritating the nearby nerves. This can cause sciatica or back pain.

Most disks rupture (or herniate) in the lower part of your spine (also called your lumbar spine). These disks usually rupture (break) between the fourth and fifth lumbar bone and also between the fifth lumbar bone and the first sacral bone (close to your tailbone).

Because your lumbar bones (or vertebrae) are in the lower part of your spine, having a problem with the disks in your lumbar vertebrae is also called lumbar disk disease. People with lumbar disk disease often have bulging disks or herniated (ruptured) disks.

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Causes & Symptoms of Herniated Disks & Lumbar Disk Disease

What Can Cause a Herniated Disk in the Lower Back?

For most people, herniated or bulging disks happen simply because of aging. As we get older, our spinal disks naturally weaken and break down. Injuries can also make herniated disks worse and cause them to rupture more.

Symptoms of Herniated Disks

People can have different symptoms for lumbar disk disease depending on where their nerve has ruptured and what nerve root the herniated disk material is pressing down on. Some common symptoms of lumbar disk disease include the following:

  • Irregular or continual back pain. Sometimes coughing, sneezing, moving, or event standing up for a long time can make back pain from a ruptured disk worse.
  • Sciatica
  • Foot or leg numbness
  • Poor reflexes in your ankle or knee
  • Spasms in your back muscles
  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Leg muscle weakness

It’s also easy to confuse lumbar disk disease symptoms with other conditions. It’s important to see your doctor to get an accurate diagnosis.

Lumbar Disk Disease Complications

If left untreated, lumbar disk disease can cause numbness or weakness in your legs, along with bowel and bladder problems. It can also cause severe back and leg pain that can get in the way of your everyday activities.


Your doctor will diagnose a herniated disk with a physical exam and, sometimes, imaging tests. With treatment, most people recover. Treatments include rest, pain and anti-inflammatory medicines, physical therapy, and keeping your weight at a healthy level.

Your doctor may also recommend using a special pillow or device that supports your lower back muscles and spine, or education on correct body posture and positions.

If these treatments don’t work, your doctor may recommend spine surgery, such as endoscopic spine surgery, to remove your ruptured disk.

Note: Some of this content is provided and made available by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Meet Our Herniated Disk Patients

When confronted with debilitating pain from her herniated disk, Amy McClosky-McGinley sought the expertise of U of U Health's neurosurgery team for an endoscopic diskectomy. Their steadfast support and minimally invasive treatments set her on a path to healing and recovery, allowing her to reclaim her vibrant life.

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