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What Causes a Herniated Disc?

What Causes a Herniated Disc?

Herniated discs, also called ruptured discs, are the most common cause of back and neck pain in adults. They’re also to blame for most cases of leg pain, numbness, and weakness related to nerve compression.

Neurosurgeon Dr. Patrick Doherty and our team at Yale Neurosurgery New London specialize in diagnosing and treating conditions that affect the spine, including disc problems.

Here’s what our team wants you to know about the causes of herniated discs.

Herniated disc basics

Intervertebral discs sit between the vertically stacked bones (vertebrae) in the spine. When they’re healthy, these circular structures measure about one inch in diameter and are a quarter inch thick.

Each disc has a tough outer layer (annulus fibrosus), which encases the softer or more elastic inner layer (nucleus pulposus). Discs act as shock absorbers, preventing the vertebrae from rubbing against each other and allowing limited flexibility in the spine.

A herniated disc occurs when the nucleus pulposus bulges through the outer annulus fibrosus. Depending on the size and location of the bulge, a herniated disc may cause pain related to the pressure it places on surrounding nerves and other spinal structures. 

Possible causes of a herniated disc

Several factors and conditions can lead to a herniated disc, including:

Age-related changes

You can experience a herniated or ruptured disc at any age, but they’re most common in adults over 30.

The inner gel-like portion of an intervertebral disc hardens after childhood, so it loses water content and becomes less flexible. In adults, intervertebral discs are about the consistency of hard rubber, making them more vulnerable to rupture or herniation as the outer material thins, weakens, and sometimes cracks.

Disc herniation most often occurs in the lower back (lumbar spine) or neck region (cervical spine).

Physical strain

Inappropriate lifting techniques, especially when moving heavy objects, strain the back and increase your risk of disc injury. However, even a minor strain or twisting injury can cause a herniated disc.


Injuries sustained during a car accident, fall, or other trauma can result in disc damage or herniation.

Repetitive motion

Regularly engaging in sports, hobbies, or work activities that involve repetitive bending, lifting, or twisting increases your risk of a herniated disc.

Poor posture

Sitting or standing with poor posture for extended periods puts undue pressure on spinal structures, including the discs, making them more vulnerable to herniation.


Excess weight, poor nutrition, and habits such as smoking can contribute to your risk of herniated discs. Smoking, for instance, decreases the oxygen supply to discs, speeding degenerative changes that contribute to disc injury.

How do I know it’s a herniated disc, and what’s the best treatment?

Symptoms of a herniated disc can vary widely, depending on the location of the herniation and the types of nerve tissue affected.

For instance, sciatica commonly results from a herniated disc in the lower back compressing or pinching the sciatic nerve root. Sciatica often causes tingling, numbness, and sharp shooting pain traveling into the affected leg.

As part of your initial evaluation, Dr. Doherty may request diagnostic imaging studies such as an MRI to confirm the underlying cause of your back pain or neck pain.

Otherwise, common symptoms of a herniated disc include:

Herniated discs typically respond well to anti-inflammatory medication, activity modification, physical therapy, and other conservative treatments.

If these measures fail, Dr. Doherty may recommend surgical correction, often a minimally invasive procedure that reduces recovery and healing time compared to traditional surgery. 

You don’t have to live with pain from a herniated disc. Schedule a visit with Dr. Doherty at our office in New London, Connecticut

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