What is a Herniated Disc

By Sally Ann Quirke, Chartered Physiotherapist | Filed under: Herniated Disc


Herniated Disc
Illustration of a Healthy Spine

Also knowns as a slipped disc, here is a quick article that describes what a Herniated Disc is.

See the blue disc in the illustration? Well that is a healthy young spinal disc. Spinal discs are positioned in between each of the vertebra of your spine. Their role is to provide cushion the vertebra and provide shock absorption, as well as help facilitate movement of the vertebrae as it protects the spinal cord. I like to describe a disc like a jam-filled “doughnut” - it has a relatively crunchy outer shell and a jammy soft centre. When a disc in your back is herniated the jam in the centre oozes out of its correct position.

A herniated disc is when the disc material that lies like a cushion between each of your spinal vertebrae is pushed out of its normal position. It commonly oozes backwards called a posterior disc herniation/protrusion, or to the right or left side called a posteriolateral disc herniation/protrusion. It can herniate forwards called an anterior disc herniation/protrusion, but this presentation is less common.

What can happen if your disc is herniated?

Herniated Disc Illustration
Herniated Disc Illustration - see how the disc (purple) is oozing onto a nerve (blue) causing irritation (and pain)!

If your disc is herniated it may cause no symptoms and have no effect on your life whatsoever. It is common for people to have some degree of disc herniation without symptoms. However if your disc presses or impinges on your spinal cord or peripheral (root) nerves, you will have symptoms associated with this. This is the most common presentation that I see on a daily basis.

  • For example if your disc at the very base of your back has herniated to the right, and presses on a nerve at the level of L5/S1, this is known as a Lumbar Disc Herniation. You will have pain in your lower back, mainly to the lower right side, with or without pain down the back of your leg.

    This leg pain is due to the nerve being pinched which results in the nerve referring pain down its course. You may have pins and needles, numbness and leg weakness due to the nerve being pinched.

For years herniated discs were called ‘slipped discs’ or ‘discs out of place’. The correct term is disc herniation and in most cases they respond excellently to conservative physiotherapy treatment.

Early intervention and diagnosis is the key. Poorly treated disc herniations can cause permanent damage to the nerve impinged, so seek medical intervention and not anything else from the outset.

  • Find out what the typical Symptoms of a Herniated Disc are - and how they are treated

  • Treating a Herniated Disc is very much dependent on getting a correct diagnosis. This article introduces some of the treatment options available

  • If you are looking for Exercises for a Herniated Disc, then I would encourage you to read this article first, as it explains why the types of exercises to treat a herniated disc are very much dependent on the type of herniation present.

While the content and materials contained in the articles on this website have been written & researched by Sally Ann Quirke, a professional, practising & fully qualified Chartered Physiotherapist (Physical Therapist) based in Ireland, they are provided for general information and educational purposes only. They do not constitute medical advice on any particular individual situation. Please see your Chartered Physiotherapist or other medical practitioner for full and individual consultation.

Please read the full disclaimer here.

Cookies and Privacy

By using this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our cookie policy. For more information on how we use cookies, please read our cookie policy here.