To understand a herniated disc, it can be helpful to imagine that the discs providing cushioning between the vertebrae in your spine are designed a lot like jelly donuts — a strong outer ring of fiber with a softer, more gelatinous substance in the center that acts as a cushion between each of your vertebrae. A herniated nucleus pulposus (the scientific term for a herniated disc) is simply a weakening and rupturing of the outer shell, or annulus, and the resulting movement of the softer inner material out of the disk, usually as a result of excessive strain placed on the spine. This strain can come from sudden, violent movement — a car accident, for example — or over time with repeated stress such as from heavy lifting.
While there’s a common misperception that most serious back or neck pain is caused by herniated discs, they’re actually a far less common cause than most people think.
Most episodes of back or neck pain are in fact caused by strain of the muscles and ligaments in your back or neck. The pain resulting from the strain of these soft supportive structures in your back or neck typically improve with oral analgesics and rest for several days. In contrast, pain from an acutely herniated disc can cause pain that may not improve with rest and medications. In addition to back or neck pain, disc herniations often cause pain, numbness and weakness in the leg or arm respectively. Treatments include simple observation, physical therapy, oral medications, injections, and in the most serious cases, surgery.