Disc Herniations in the Lumbar Spine: Frequently Asked Questions

What is a disc herniation?

Disc herniation is a broad term describing specific changes in a lumbar disc.

A disc is a soft, rubbery structure located between the vertebral bodies (bones of the spine). The disc acts as a pad or cushion for the bone. The outer portion of the disc (the annulus fibrosus) is made up of a tough fibrocartilage. The middle section (the nucleus pulposus) composed of water and collagen and has a gelatinous (jelly-like) consistency. (Some people describe the disc structure as resembling a jelly donut.) The disc allows for movement of the vertebral bodies and provides a buffer for compression between the bones. Normally, this system works very well.

Diagram showing overhead view of a lumbar spinal disc.
Overhead diagram of a lumbar spinal disc

When a disc herniates, however, there has been a tear in the annulus fibrosus, and some of the gelatinous center comes out through the tear. These herniations are described by their size, as follows: bulge (small), protrusion (slightly larger), extrusion (big) and a sequestered fragment (when some of the material has broken off from the disc). Once the disc has left its original anatomical position, the disc itself can be painful, it might irritate a nerve, or it may contribute to narrowing of the spinal canal [1].

I have an MRI report that says I have three herniated discs. What does that mean?

First, it is quite common to have multiple herniated discs in the lumbar spine. In studies of people who were not experiencing back pain, many had disc herniations that caused no pain symptoms. Second, the term “disc herniation” is very broad, and can describe mild bulges to extreme protrusions that cause pain.

“Herniation” is a good – if broad – term to describe a change in the disc. In many ways, it is as generic as saying you drive “a car”. But that car can be a compact car, a sedan, a station wagon, or a large SUV. The same goes for disc herniations – they can be disc bulges, protrusions, extrusions or sequestered fragments. As they get bigger, they involve more symptoms [2].

I have back pain and an MRI showing a disc has herniated. Do I need surgery?

There are four situations where surgery is probably the best solution. These are, if you have:

  • cauda equina syndrome
  • progressive strength loss
  • intractable pain
  • continued symptoms despite nonsurgical treatments[3]

Cauda equina syndrome

This is a disorder affecting a bundle of spinal nerve roots, which is extremely rare and requires urgent surgery. This syndrome includes back and leg pain, weakness and numbness, and may be associated with problems with bladder and bowel function.

Progressive strength loss

Many people have some strength loss, but if it is worsening, this would be an indication for surgery.

Intractable pain

If your pain cannot be controlled with medicine, injections, or therapy, then this too would be an indication for surgery.

Failure of conservative care

If a comprehensive program of physical therapy, medication, and/or injections has failed, then you might be a candidate for surgery.

What happens to my herniated disc if I don’t have surgery?

A study of patients with different sized herniations showed that by six months to one year, herniated disc material had dissolved in many of the cases. The larger the herniation (extrusions), the faster the material was reabsorbed.[4]

Long-term studies have shown that, although surgical intervention may generate a faster initial recovery time, conservative (nonsurgical) outcomes are equally effective in patients after five and 10 years [5, 6].

Why do I feel pain in my leg if the herniated disc is in my back?

The nerves in your legs come off of the spinal cord. As they come off, they run in the spinal canal and then come out between two of the spinal vertebrae. It is in the canal that the disc irritates the nerve, sending pain down the leg. [7, 8]. 

When these nerves are still in the spinal canal, they are named by the associated disc level (lumbar 5 or L5). Once they exit the canal at the individual vertebrae levels, they are grouped together to make up named nerves, such as the sciatic nerve.

What are my options for herniated disc treatment without surgery?

There are a lot of options for nonsurgical treatment of low back pain. The first is physical therapy. Good physical therapy will allow for the disc to heal and to provide improvements in biomechanics and strength. Recent studies have shown that directed physical therapy is more successful than more random approaches. Often, this is enough.

When the pain is too much to try physical therapy, however, epidural steroid injections can also be very helpful. Epidural injections are safe when compared to more invasive procedures. Complications include bleeding, headaches, infections, and very rarely, injury to a nerve. However, pain reduction can be markedly improved. Studies have shown excellent pain reduction and return to function with the use of epidural injections.

The combination of these two techniques can be the most effective treatment of all – the epidural provides pain reduction and makes the physical therapy that much more successful.


  1. Brant-Zawadzki MN, Jensen MC, Obuchowski N, Ross JS, Modic MT: Interobserver and intraobserver variability in interpretation of lumbar disc abnormalities. A comparison of two nomenclatures. Spine. 1995 Jun 1;2011:1257-63; discussion 1264.
  2. Boden SD, Davis DO, Dina TS, Patronas NJ, Wiesel SW: Abnormal magnetic-resonance scans of the lumbar spine in asymptomatic subjects. A prospective investigation. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1990 Mar;723:403-8.
  3. Weber H: The natural history of disc herniation and the influence of intervention. Spine. 1994 Oct 1;1919:2234-8; discussion 2233. Review
  4. Birkmeyer NJ, Weinstein JN: Medical versus surgical treatment for low back pain: evidence and clinical practice. Eff Clin Pract. 1999 Sep-Oct;25:218-27
  5. Saal JA, Saal JS, Herzog RJ: The natural history of lumbar intervertebral disc extrusions treated nonoperatively.Spine. 1990 Jul;157:683-6.
  6. Weber H: The natural history of disc herniation and the influence of intervention. Spine. 1994 Oct 1;1919:2234-8; discussion 2233. Review
  7. Ohnmeiss DD, Vanharanta H, Ekholm J:Degree of disc disruption and lower extremity pain. Spine. 1997 Jul 15;2214:1600-5.
  8. 8.Spencer DL: The anatomical basis of sciatica secondary to herniated lumbar disc: a review. Neurol Res. 1999;21 Suppl 1:S33-6. Review.
  9. Fritz, Julie M. PhD, PT, ATC *; Delitto, Anthony PhD, PT, FAPTA *+; Erhard, Richard E. DC, PT: Comparison of Classification-Based Physical Therapy With Therapy Based on Clinical Practice Guidelines for Patients with Acute Low Back Pain: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Spine. 2813:1363-1371, July 1, 2003.
  10. Huston CW, Slipman CW, Garvin C: Complications and side effects of cervical and lumbosacral selective nerve root injections. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2005 Feb;862:277-83.
  11. Lutz GE, Vad VB, Wisneski RJ: Fluoroscopic transforaminal lumbar epidural steroids: an outcome study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1998 Nov;7911:1362-6.
  12. Vad, Vijay B. MD; Bhat, Atul L. MD ,[S]; Lutz, Gregory E. MD; Cammisa, Frank MD:Transforaminal Epidural Steroid Injections in Lumbosacral Radiculopathy: A Prospective Randomized Study. Spine. 271:11-15, January 1, 2002.
  13. Weinstein SM, Herring SA: Lumbar Epidural Injections, Spine J. 2003 May-Jun;33 Suppl:37S-44S


Image - Photo of Peter J. Moley, MD
Peter J. Moley, MD
Associate Attending Physiatrist, Hospital for Special Surgery
Associate Professor of Rehabilitation Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College

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