Herniated Disc: Care Instructions

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Healthy and herniated discs


The bones that form the spine in your back are cushioned by small discs. If a disc is damaged, it may bulge or break open (herniate). A herniated disc can result from normal wear and tear as we age or from an injury or disease. If a herniated disc irritates or presses on a nerve, it can cause pain and numbness in your leg (sciatica) and/or back pain.

Your symptoms may get better on their own in a few weeks or months. Avoid movements and positions that make your pain worse. Medicine and exercise can also help. In some cases, you may need surgery.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • For most back and neck pain, you can take over-the-counter pain medicine. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and Tylenol are examples. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • If your doctor gave you prescription medicines, take them exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Avoid movements and positions that increase your pain or numbness.
  • Improve your posture. Slumping or slouching alone may not cause low back pain. But after the back has been strained or injured, bad posture can make pain worse.
  • Try taking short walks and doing light activities that do not cause pain. Even if you are feeling some pain, it is important to keep your muscles active and strong.
  • Use heat or ice to relieve pain.
    • To apply heat, put a warm water bottle, heating pad set on low, or warm cloth on your back. Do not go to sleep with a heating pad on your skin.
    • To use ice, put ice or a cold pack on the area for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin.
  • Do exercises that your doctor or physical therapist suggests. These may include core stabilization exercises. These will help keep your back muscles strong and prevent another injury.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. This may reduce the load on your back.
  • Quit smoking if you smoke. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • To avoid hurting your back when lifting:
    • Lift with your legs, not your back, by squatting and bending your knees. Avoid bending forward at the waist when lifting.
    • Rise slowly.
    • Keep the load as close to your body as possible, at the level of your belly button.
    • Avoid turning or twisting your body while holding a heavy object.
    • Get help if you need to lift a heavy object. Never lift a heavy object above shoulder level.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You are unable to move a leg at all.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or worse symptoms in your arms, legs, chest, belly, or buttocks. Symptoms may include:
    • Numbness or tingling.
    • Weakness.
    • Pain.
  • You lose bladder or bowel control.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You are not getting better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.