Herniated Nucleus Pulposus

Updated: Jul 01, 2021
Author: Deepak Gautam, MBBS, MS(Orth); Chief Editor: Jeffrey A Goldstein, MD 


Practice Essentials

Low back pain is essentially the modern-day pandemic, with chronic low back pain (LBP) being the second leading cause of adult disability in the United States.[1]  The symptoms of degenerative lumbar spine disease can broadly be divided into two broad categories: (1) LBP and (2) radicular symptoms in the lower extremities, which in some cases lead to neurogenic claudication. In terms of the pathology, the common subgroups of LBP of intervertebral disk origin include the following:

  • Lumbar disk herniation
  • Internal disk disruption (IDD)
  • Degenerative disk disease (DDD)

Disk herniation, though more frequently encountered in the lumbar spine, is fairly common in the cervical spine as well and may also be seen, albeit less commonly, in the thoracic spine. In principle, disk herniation represents the failure of the tensile anulus fibrosus to keep the inner nucleus pulposus contained; as a result, the nucleus becomes herniated, leading to the subsequent manifestation of clinical symptoms. 

The symptoms due to herniated nucleus pulposus (HNP) can ultimately be attributed to the significant inflammatory response it generates inside the spinal canal. Disk injury results in an increase in the proinflammatory molecules interleukin (IL)-1, IL-8, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α. Macrophages respond to this displaced foreign material and seek to clear the spinal canal. Subsequently, a significant scar is produced, even without surgery, and substance P, which is associated with pain, is detected.

Apart from this inflammatory cascade that ensues, disk herniation also results in a definite mechanical neural compression that is responsible for dysfunction of the compressed nerve root. Symptoms may be motor (weakness along a myotome) or sensory (numbness/paraethesias across a dermatome). In severe cases, loss of bladder or bowel control may ensue; this is known as the cauda equina syndrome. Inflammation of the nerve contributes just as much to the radicular pain as mechanical compression does, and this explains the lack of correlation between the actual size of an intervertebral disk herniation or even the consequent degree of neural compression and the associated clinical symptoms.[2]

Smoking is one of the most important risk factors behind disk herniation. Lumbar disk herniation may result from chronic coughing and other stresses on the disk. For example, sitting without lumbar support causes an increase in disk pressures, and driving is also a risk factor because of the resonant coupling of 5-Hz vibrations from the road to the spine. People who drive signifcant amounts have increased spinal problems; truck drivers have the additional risk of spinal problems from lifting during loading and unloading, which, unfortunately, is done after prolonged driving.

Studies showed that peak stresses within a deteriorated intervertebral disk exceed those from average loads on a normal disk, which is consistent with a pain mechanism. Further repetitive stress at physiologic levels did not produce a herniation after prolonged testing, contradicting the concept of injury accumulation with customary work activities. However, after a simulated injury to the anulus (cutting), a lower mechanical stress did result in disk herniation, consistent with intervertebral disk degeneration and with clinical experience on diskography.

The presumed traumatic cause of disk herniations has been questioned scientifically in the literature, particularly with the increased availability of genetic information.[3, 4]  The pathologic state of a weakened anulus is a necessary condition for herniation to occur. Many cases involve trivial trauma even in the presence of repetitive stress. An anular tear or weak spot has not been demonstrated to result from repetitive normal stress from customary activities or from physically stressful activities.

Mixter and Barr first recognized that the cartilaginous masses in the spinal canal of their patients were not tumors or chondromas.[5]  They proposed that herniation of the nucleus pulposus and displacement of nuclear material caused neural irritation, inflammation, and pain. They showed that excising a disk fragment was effective, but their recommendation to perform this procedure with a fusion was necessitated by relatively aggressive laminectomy. This procedure has been replaced by techniques that are less invasive, such as microdiskectomy.

Bed rest has a long history of use but has not been shown to be effective beyond the initial 1 or 2 days; after this period, it is counterproductive. All conservative treatments are essentially efforts to reduce inflammation. Therefore, only a very short period of rest is appropriate; anti-inflammatories are of some benefit, and warm, moist heat or modalities may help. Tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α antagonism was experimentally shown to decrease inflammatory events in preclinical models.

Long-term use of physical therapy modalities is no more effective than hot showers or hot packs are at home. A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit may be subjectively helpful in some patients with chronic conditions. Patients should be encouraged essentially to compensate for intervertebral disk incompetence, to the extent possible, by means of muscular stabilization, as well as to maintain flexibility by initiating lifelong exercise regimens.

The various surgical procedures reported have the common goal of decompressing the neural elements to relieve the leg pain. These procedures are most appropriate for patients with minimal or tolerable back pain who have an essentially intact and clinically stable disk. However, the hope of permanently relieving the back pain is a fantasy—a false hope.

The most common procedure for a herniated or ruptured intervertebral disk has been microdiskectomy, and many patients who undergo this procedure can be discharged with minimal soreness and complete relief of leg pain after overnight admission and observation. Same-day procedures are in the process of cautious development. Patients with dominant back pain have a different problem, even if HNP is present, and would require stabilization by fusion if unresponsive to well-managed appropriate therapy or arthroplasty. Minimally invasive techniques generally fall into two broad categories: central decompression of the disk and directed fragmentectomy.


The intervertebral disk is the largest avascular structure in the body. It arises from notochordal cells between the cartilaginous endplates, which regress from about 50% of the disk space at birth to about 5% in the adult, with chondrocytes replacing the notochordal cells.

Intervertebral disks are located in the spinal column between successive vertebral bodies and are oval in cross-section. Their height increases from the peripheral edges to the center, appearing as a biconvex shape that becomes successively larger by about 11% per segment from cephalad to caudal (ie, from the cervical spine to the lumbosacral articulation). A longitudinal ligament attaches to the vertebral bodies and to the intervertebral disks anteriorly and posteriorly; the cartilaginous endplate of each disk attaches to the bony endplate of the vertebral body. (See the images below.)

Nuclear material is normally contained within anul Nuclear material is normally contained within anulus, but it may cause bulging of anulus or may herniate through anulus into spinal canal. This commonly occurs in posterolateral location of intervertebral disk, as depicted.
Spinal nerves exit spinal canal through foramina a Spinal nerves exit spinal canal through foramina at each level. Decreased disk height causes decreased foramen height to same degree, and superior articular facet of caudal vertebral body may become hypertrophic and develop spur, which then projects toward nerve root situated just under pedicle. In this picture, L4-5 has loss of disk height and some facet hypertrophy, thereby encroaching on room available for exiting nerve root (L4). Herniated nucleus pulposus within canal would embarrass traversing root (L5).

The disc's anular structure is composed of an outer anulus fibrosus, which is a constraining ring that is composed primarily of type 1 collagen. This fibrous ring has alternating layers oriented at 60° from the horizontal to allow isovolumic rotation. That is, just as a shark swimming and turning in the water does not buckle its skin, the intervertebral disk has the ability to rotate or bend without a significant change in volume, so that the hydrostatic pressure of the inner portion of the disk (ie, the nucleus pulposus) is not affected.

The nucleus pulposus consists predominantly of type II collagen, proteoglycan, and hyaluronan long chains, which have regions with highly hydrophilic branching side chains. These negatively charged regions have a strong avidity for water molecules and hydrate the nucleus or center of the disk via an osmotic swelling pressure effect. The major proteoglycan constituent is aggrecan, which is connected by link protein to the long hyaluronan. A fibril network, including a number of collagen types along with fibronectin, decorin, and lumican, contains the nucleus pulposus.

The hydraulic effect of the contained hydrated nucleus within the anulus acts as a shock absorber to cushion the spinal column from forces that are applied to the musculoskeletal system. Each vertebra of the spinal column has an anterior centrum or body. The centra are stacked in a weightbearing column and are supported by the intervertebral disks. A corresponding posterior bony arch encloses and protects the neural elements, and each side of the posterior elements has a facet joint or articulation to allow motion.

The functional segmental unit is the combination of an anterior disk and the two posterior facet joints, and it provides protection for the neural elements within the acceptable constraints of clinical stability. The facet joints connect the vertebral bodies on each side of the lamina, forming the posterior arch. These joints are connected at each level by the ligamentum flavum, which is yellow because of the high elastin content and allows significant extensibility and flexibility of the spinal column.

Clinical stability has been defined as the ability of the spine under physiologic load to limit patterns of displacement so as to avoid damage or irritation to the spinal cord or nerve roots and to prevent incapacitating deformity or pain caused by structural changes.[6] Any disruption of the components holding the spine together (ie, ligaments, intervertebral disks, facets) decreases the clinical stability of the spine. When the spine loses enough of these components to prevent it from adequately providing the mechanical function of protection, surgery may be necessary to reestablish stability.


Degeneration: process and models

LBP is ubiquitous, with 60-80% of people having an activity-limiting episode at least transiently in their lifetime. Genetic factors appear to play a dominant role, with LBP starting at an earlier age than previously suspected on the basis of subsequent structural changes; men begin having LBP about a decade earlier than women do.[7]

The water-retaining ability of the nucleus pulposus (the inner portion of the intervertebral disk) declines progressively with age. The decline in the mechanical properties of the nucleus pulposus is associated with the degree of proteoglycan deterioration and the decrease in hydration, which lead to excessive regional peak pressures within the disk. As the hyaluronan long chains shorten and swelling pressure decreases as a result of this deterioration, the mechanical stiffness of the disk decreases, which causes the anulus to bulge, with a corresponding loss of disk and foramen height.[8] (See the image below.)

Hyaluronan long chains form backbone for attractin Hyaluronan long chains form backbone for attracting electronegative or hydrophilic branches, which hydrate nucleus pulposus and cause swelling pressure within anulus to allow it to stabilize vertebrae and act as shock absorber. Deterioration within intervertebral disk results in loss of these water-retaining branches and eventually in shortening of chains.

The etiology of back pain for a particular individual cannot be determined, because of the multiplicity of potential sources. Although periosteal disruption causes pain with fractures, bone itself is devoid of pain receptors (eg, asymptomatic compression fractures commonly are seen in the thoracic spine of elderly individuals with osteoporosis). However, the degenerating intervertebral disk is known to have neurovascular elements at the periphery, including pain fibers.

Disk deterioration and loss of disk height may shift the balance of weightbearing to the facet joint; this mechanism has been hypothesized as a cause of LBP through the facet-joint capsule, as well as through other tissues attached to and between the posterior bony elements.

When the anulus is incised in animals, a degenerative cascade is initiated that mimics the natural aging process observed in humans, thus providing a model of disk deterioration.[9] As the use of diskography has increased for various clinical applications, similar anular tears are seen routinely that are associated with the degeneration of the intervertebral disk, even in patients who are asymptomatic. Anular tears may simply be the result of aging and the degenerative cascade.

Pathology studies of young patients who died as a result of trauma reveal a surprising degree of articular surface damage in the facet joints; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) routinely reveals disk deterioration in individuals in the second or third decade of life. Injection of chymopapain into the intervertebral disk causes a repeatable and predictable degenerative cascade in the facet joints, illustrating the coupling between the disk and the facet joints. Immobilization by facet fusion posteriorly leads to disk deterioration; this avascular structure is solely dependent upon motion to facilitate the diffusion of nutrients into it.

Whether the deterioration of the disk or that of the facet comes first has not been determined; however, deterioration is known to occur in both.

Dehydration results from shortening of the hyaluronic chains, deterioration of the state of aggregation, and decreases in the ratio of chondroitin sulfate to keratan sulfate, leading to disk bulging and loss of disk height. The consistency of the nuclear material undergoes a change from a homogeneous material to clumps, which leads to the altered distribution of pressures within the disk and resistance to the flow of nuclear material; the nuclear material thereby becomes mechanically unstable.[10] The clumping of the degenerating nuclear material can be likened to a marble held between two books—that is, it is difficult to contain.

These clumps may be lateral to the posterior longitudinal ligament and therefore may have the least resistance to herniating through the corner of the intervertebral disk and into the spinal canal or foramen. Surgical removal of the herniated fragments is achieved by grasping them with a pituitary rongeur.

This method of surgical removal is not possible with normal homogeneous material, which is encountered when healthy intervertebral disks are excised anteriorly in patients undergoing surgery because of deformity or trauma. Using the pituitary rongeur technique to perform a microdiskectomy on a herniated fragment necessitates a preexisting state of deterioration; the weakened areas in the anulus provide a path of least resistance for the nuclear material to egress.

Natural history

Much has been written concerning the process of spinal deterioration or spondylosis, which occurs over a lifetime. Intervertebral disk deterioration leads to decreased stiffness of the disk, as well as diminished stability, resulting in episodic pain that is common and may be temporarily severe. However, continued deterioration ultimately leads to restabilization of the spine by collagenization, which stiffens the disk. Patients in their 50s and 60s customarily have stiffer spines but less pain than patients in their 30s and 40s who are undergoing initiation of the degenerative cascade.

Patients who ask if they have to live with this pain "for the rest of their lives" can be reassured to some extent by this natural history. Furthermore, spontaneous recovery from an acute pain episode routinely occurs; thus, for any treatment to be demonstrated as effective, it must positively alter the expected course without treatment.

In general practice, the overall incidence of HNP in patients who have new-onset LBP is lower than 2%. Therefore, most of these patients have deterioration of the intervertebral disk and dysfunction of the functional segmental unit. They will have LBP, and some will have associated leg pain but without sciatica (an intractable, radiating pain below the knee) or radiculopathy. A disk fragment that is no longer contained within the anulus but is displaced into the spinal canal has decreased hydration and deteriorated proteoglycan that can be expected to undergo further deterioration and consequent anular desiccation, essentially resembling a grape being transformed into a raisin.

Spontaneous resolution of sciatica may result from shrinkage of a herniated fragment, aided by macrophages and the evoked inflammatory reaction, but practitioners too often attribute this clinical improvement to their favorite treatments. Intractable symptoms of sciatica from intervertebral disk displacements may benefit dramatically from surgical intervention.

Within 20 years of Mixter and Barr's 1934 report, Friedenberg compared operative treatment with nonoperative treatment.[5, 11] Nonoperative treatment yielded three groups of results: pain-free, occasional residual pain, and disabling pain. Proportions of these groups remained similar after 5 years. Friedenberg concluded that even recurrent severe episodes may resolve without surgery; the problem was and remains patient selection.

Weber presented a randomized, controlled study (marred by dropouts in the surgery control group because of severe pain) and concluded that patient results were the same with operative as with conservative treatment, except that those who were treated operatively had better results at 1 year.[12]

The Spine Patient Outcomes Research Trial (SPORT) observational cohort was similarly limited in its conclusions by crossovers: 50% of the surgery arm had surgery within 3 months and 30% of the nonsurgical group had surgery, but at long-term follow-up, the two groups again were not statistically different.[13]


Patients with "broad-based" intervertebral disk herniations generally have a deterioration of the disk or a failure of clinical stability with associated back pain, rather than isolated sciatica. These patients are not appropriate candidates for microdiskectomy alone.

Lumbar fusion is being used increasingly in these cases, and arthroplasty is also being considered; however, this treatment remains controversial because it is, again, based inevitably on subjective patient pain and clinical judgment without objective determination. Many reports in the literature have described specific cytokines elevated, but not comprehensively; endplate changes are observed but no clear correlation identified to this point. Various nuclear replacements that reduce postoperative loss of disk height and restore compressive loading are being studied.[14]

With a diskectomy, patients with dominant leg pain have excellent results, with 85-90% returning to full function. However, as many as 15% of patients have continued back pain that may limit their return to full function, despite the absence of radiculopathy. Patients who undergo surgery do not necessarily show better results than those who defer surgery.[15]

The remaining concern of recurrent herniation is small, though it is correlated with obesity.[16]  Efforts to minimize this complication have included anulus repair[17]  and injection of hemostatic materials or bioactive molecules. Etanercept was shown in a small study to be of no benefit for sciatica, though the addition of butorphanol with corticosteroid was helpful with an epidural injection.[18]

Intervertebral disk degeneration that causes clumping of the nuclear material and relative mechanical instability is the necessary preceding condition for HNP. However, it is impossible to tell which patients will do well after microdiskectomy for a herniation and which will have continued problems, of varying severity, from the disk degeneration. Studies have shown that degenerated disks have different growth factors and other molecules; thus, even introducing mesenchymal stem cells requires significant further research and development.[19]

Significant deterioration and accompanying LBP increasingly are being treated with stabilization, via either an anterior lumbar interbody fusion (ALIF) or a posterior lumbar interbody fusion (PLIF) in association with posterior decompression (when necessary) and instrumentation. Techniques continue to evolve, and conclusive results remain to be determined.

Tomasino et al presented radiologic and clinical outcome data on patients who underwent single-level anterior cervical diskectomy and fusion (ACDF) for cervical spondylosis or disk herniation with the use of bioabsorbable plates for instrumentation.[20] Overall, at 19.5 months postoperatively, 83% of the patients had favorable outcomes according to the Odom criteria.

The authors found that absorbable instrumentation provides better stability than the absence of a plate but that graft subsidence and deformity rates may be higher than those associated with metal implants.[20] In this study, the fusion rate and outcome were found to be comparable to the results achieved with metallic plates, and the authors concluded that the use of bioabsorbable plates is a reasonable alternative to metal, avoiding the need for lifelong metallic implants.

Buchowski et al performed a cross-sectional analysis of two large prospective randomized multicenter trials to evaluate the efficacy of cervical disk arthroplasty for myelopathy with a single-level abnormality localized to the disk space.[21]  Both patients in the arthroplasty group and those in the arthrodesis group had improvement after surgery, with improvement being similar and with no worsening of myelopathy occurring in the arthroplasty group. Although the findings at 2 years after surgery suggested that arthroplasty is equivalent to arthrodesis in these cases, the authors did not evaluate treatment of the retrovertebral compression that occurs with ossification of the posterior longitudinal ligament.

Carragee et al compared progression of common degenerative findings between lumbar disks injected 10 years previously and those same disks in matched subjects who were not exposed to diskography.[22] In all graded or measured parameters, disks exposed to puncture and injection showed greater progression of degenerative findings than control (noninjected) disks did (35% vs 14%), with 55 new disk herniations occurring in the diskography group and 22 in the control group. There also was significantly greater loss of disk height and signal intensity in the diskography disks. The authors recommended careful consideration of risk and benefit in regard to disk injection.

McGirt et al performed a prospective cohort study using standardized postoperative lumbar imaging with computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) every 3 months for 1 year and annually thereafter to assess same-level recurrent disk herniation.[23] Improvement in all outcome measures was observed 6 weeks after surgery. At 3 months after surgery, 18% loss of disk height was observed, which progressed to 26% by 2 years. In 11 (10.2%) patients, revision diskectomy was required at a mean of 10.5 months after surgery.

In this study,[23] patients who had larger anular defects and removal of smaller disk volumes had an increased risk of recurrent disk herniation, and those who had greater disk volumes removed had more progressive disk height loss by 6 months after surgery. The authors suggested, on the basis of these findings, that in cases of larger anular defects or less aggressive disk removal, concern for recurrent herniation should be increased and that effective anular repair may be helpful in such cases.

Fish et al performed a retrospective single-center study to analyze whether MRI findings could be used to predict therapeutic responses to cervical epidural steroid injections (CESI) in patients with cervical radiculopathy.[24] Patients were categorized by the presence or absence of four types of cervical MRI findings: disk herniation, nerve-root compromise, neuroforaminal stenosis, and central-canal stenosis. Only the presence, versus the absence, of central-canal stenosis was associated with significantly superior therapeutic response to CESI. The authors therefore concluded that the MRI finding of central-canal stenosis is a potential indication that CESI may be merited.

Hirsch et al systematically reviewed the literature to determine the effectiveness of automated percutaneous lumbar diskectomy (APLD).[25] The authors noted that according to United States Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) criteria, the indicated evidence for APLD is level II-2 for short- and long-term relief, indicating that APLD may provide appropriate relief in properly selected patients with contained lumbar disk prolapse. However, the authors also noted that there was a paucity of randomized, controlled trials in the literature covering this subject.

Dasenbrock et al performed a meta-analysis of six trials (N = 837) comparing open diskectomy with minimally invasive diskectomy and found similar visual analogue scale (VAS) scores at short- and long-term follow-up.[26] No significant difference between the two approaches was apparent with regard to relief of leg pain. Reoperation was more common with limited (tubular) exposure, but the difference was not statistically significant. Total complications did not differ.

Yamaya et al assessed early outcomes of transforaminal percutaneous endoscopic lumbar diskectomy in 18 high school athletes (14 male, 4 female) with lumbar HNP.[27]   All factors assessed by questionnaire—time to return to competitive sport, complications, and rate of recurrence of herniation—were significantly improved after the procedure, and the VAS score was improved as well. There were no complications (eg, dural tear, exiting nerve root injury, or hematoma), and one patient had a recurrence of HNP.

A retrospective single-center study by Harada et al evaluated the application of machine learning techniques to predict disk reherniation after lumbar diskectomy.[28]  The authors found preoperative leg VAS score, disability, alignment parameters, elevated body mass index, symptom duration, and age to be the strongest predictors of recurrent HNP. On the basis of these findings, they developed the re-herniation after decompression (RAD) profile index as screening tool for identifying patients at low or high risk patients for HNP recurrence; this tool will require additional validation before it can be broadly implemented.




The importance of history-taking as the first integral step in the evaluation of a patient suspected of having a herniated disk cannot be overstated. 

Many of these patients narrate a history of some sort of prodromal back pain. They may correlate their symptoms with an episode of trauma, which often (in fact, more often than not) is incidental and not associated with the pathology. However, certain typical physical activities that the patient claims to have preceded their symptoms may be of importance and may lead the clinician toward the diagnosis of a herniated disk. These include sudden twists or jerks, lifiting heavy weights, and falls. 

Pain is usually the chief complaint; it may be axial or, more typically, radicular. It is important to ask the patient several questions regarding their pain, such as the following:

  • Is it predominantly back pain or leg pain?
  • What is the character of the pain?
  • Is the onset of pain acute, subacute, or chronic?
  • Is the pain aggravated by any activity or maneuver?
  • Is the pain relieved by a particular posture or maneuver?
  • Was there any previous history of similar symptoms, and if so, how were the symptoms treated?

Red-flag signs (eg, a concomitant history of fever and weight loss, unrelenting night pain, long-term oral steroid or immunosuppressant use, or a history or suspicion of cancer, particularly in patients older than 50 years) may indicate a more serious underlying pathology and should be promptly investigated. Apart from pain, pertinent questions related to the symptoms of motor weakness, sensory disturbances, and bladder or bowel dysfunction should be asked. A progressive neurologic deficit or cauda equina syndrome is considered a surgical emergency because irreversible consequences may result if these are left untreated.

Risk factors such as the patient's lifestyle—for example, if it involves prolonged sitting and bending forward, a history of smoking, or a history of antidepressant use—should also be addressed. Pain in disk herniation often has a psychosocial component, particularly when the symptoms do not follow a fixed dermatomal or myotomal pattern and do not correlate with the imaging findings. Thus, the clinician must also direct history-taking towards this important aspect. 

Obtaining a thorough history of activity intolerance requires some time and attention to the details of specific examples and the positions or actions that cause problems. Also, it is helpful to determine which activities the patient is unable or less able to perform and which activities exacerbate or moderate the pain. An assessment of the physical demands of the patient's occupation and daily activities provides the perspective for the described activity intolerance. A pain drawing can be very helpful in assessing the pattern of pain (eg, a dermatomal distribution) or in assessing the organicity of the complaints.

Physical Examination

In the physical examination, the first indication that a patient may have a lumbar disk herniation comes from the patient's gait itself as he or she walks into the examination room. A characteristic feature is a sciatic list, which represents an attempt to relieve the neuromeningeal tension by drawing the nerve root away from the herniated disk. A disk herniation lateral to the nerve root (a "shoulder disk") causes the patient to lean away from the side of the herniation, whereas a herniation medial to the nerve root (an "axillary disk") causes the patient to lean towards the side of the herniation. There may be paraspinal muscle spasm, as indicated by obliteration of the central furrow.

Numerous examination maneuvers (eg, Lasegue classic test, Lasegue rebound sign, Lasegue differential sign, Braggard sign, flip sign, Deyerle sign, Mendel-Bechterew sign, well-leg test or Fajersztajn sign, both-legs or Milgram test) are available, but they cloud the issue, in that the sciatic nerve-root tension or straight-leg raising test (SLRT) is the basis for nearly all of them. They are essentially modifications for subtle differences, but the provocation of radiating pain down the leg is of a neural compressive lesion and compression of the sciatic nerve root, if it goes below the knee. Furthermore, the provocation of radiating pain down the leg is the most sensitive test for a lumbar disk herniation.

The SLRT should always be performed bilaterally. The test is considered positive if sciatic pain is reproduced between 30º and 70º of elevation. Studies have determined that in the first 35º of elevation, the slack in the nerves is taken up, and at 35º or more, tension is placed on the nerves. More than 70º of elevation causes no further stretch of the nerve roots. The SLRT is best for eliciting L4, L5, or S1 radiculopathy.

For a higher lumbar lesion, reverse straight-leg raising or hip extension that stretches the femoral nerve is analogous to an SLRT. The Spurling test in the cervical spine is used to detect foraminal stenosis (the Kemp test is used in the lumbar region) rather than specifically for intervertebral disk herniation or nerve-root tension. Careful hip, rectal, and genitourinary examinations help exclude complications of those organ systems in the diagnosis of higher lumbar lesions.

A meticulous neurologic examination must follow inspection, palpation, and examination maneuvres. One must know the dermatomal patterns of the commonly afflicted nerve roots (L4, L5, and S1). The examiner should be wary of the presence of a glove-and-stocking distribution sensory loss, which can indicate a peripheral neuropathy, such as may be associated with diabetes, or functional overlay; this is not anatomic. Standard Medical Research Council (MRC) grading is used to grade muscle power during motor examination. Upper-motor-neuron signs can be elicited if a cervical disk herniation is causing cord compression.



Diagnostic Considerations

The diagnosis of an internal disk derangement is controversial. The classic patient presents with back pain without imaging abnormalities except for varying degrees of the black disk, which is the converse of the asymptomatic patient with an intervertebral disk herniation.

Patients without a disk herniation have a favorable course and long-term outcome with conservative treatment or surgery. However, some patients with prolonged limitations and limited job skills benefit from surgical intervention for segmental instability or clinical instability. A positive diskogram, if properly done and carefully interpreted in context, may raise the expectation of success for surgical treatment in this patient population.

The greatest controversy is over the effectiveness of fusion surgery. Unfortunately, there is no clear objective criterion; clinical judgment is mandatory and is not perfect; clearly, good patients do well, and patient selection is paramount.

Differential Diagnoses



Approach Considerations

After plain radiographs are obtained, further imaging studies (eg, magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], computed tomography [CT], and CT myelography) may be indicated to assess degenerative disk disease, loss of disk height, and facet deterioration, such as sclerosis or hypertrophy. MRI clearly provides the most information—perhaps too much, in that it has a 25% false-positive rate (asymptomatic herniated nucleus pulposus [HNP]).

An HNP that is noted on imaging studies must be correlated with objective examination findings; otherwise, it must be presumed to be an asymptomatic HNP if there is no correlation between the imaging findings and pain or clinical symptoms. Therefore, imaging studies should perhaps be reserved for cases in which positive physical findings have been documented.

Other causes of significant back pain in the absence of neurologic findings should be considered. Sciatic nerve irritation may result from sacroiliac dysfunction or degenerative joint disease caused by the proximity of the sciatic notch to the sacroiliac joint or peripheral entrapment, including piriformis syndrome. Careful examination with an adequate differential for the diagnosis may prevent prolonged ineffective empirical care for presumed lumbar disk disease.

The facet syndrome has been controversial, but neurophysiologic studies have shown discharges from the capsule consistent with pain, as well as inflammation and degenerative joint disease.[29] However, large numbers of patients have reported significant relief after facet-joint injections for nonspecific low back pain (LBP); as a result, the facet syndrome has become more widely accepted. Clinically, patients usually have pain only to the knee, not below, as would be expected from an HNP.

Imaging Studies

Plain radiography

Plain radiographs cannot show a disk herniation directly. Their main utility in the workup of a patient suspected of having disk herniation is to show indirect evidence of disk degeneration, such as disk-space narrowing, endplate changes, osteophytes, facet-joint degeneration, and alteration of sagittal balance. In fact, in most young patients with disk herniations, plain radiographs may be completely normal, except insofar as they show loss of lordosis due to muscle spasm or a sciatic tilt. As far as planning for surgery is concerned, radiography can rule out more serious underlying causes of back pain, such as infections or tumors; it can also show sacralization or lumbarization of vertebrae.

Magnetic resonance imaging

MRI is the gold standard in the evaluation of a suspected lumbar disk herniation. It provides accurate and detailed information regarding disk morphology, hydration, herniations, endplate changes, and nerve-root and cord status. (See the image below.) MRI with gadolinium contrast enhancement is often used to evaluate patients who have already undergone decompression surgery and are suspected of having recurrent or residual disk herniation. The postgadolinium T2-weighted images can be used to differentiate between scar tissue (which enhances) and disk fragments (which do not).

Appearance of lumbar disk herniation on MRI. Appearance of lumbar disk herniation on MRI.

MRI may be useful for predicting the likelihood that a patient with lumbar disk herniation will require microdiskectomy.[30]


Myelography, once considered the investigation of choice, is now rarely used. Its main disadvantage is that whereas it is capable of showing the level at which the pathology exists, it cannot define the nature or morphology of the lesion or the precise locationof the lesion in the anatomic segment. Current application of myelography is restricted to the performance of CT myelography in patients who have a contraindication for MRI, such as those who have a pacemaker in place or those who are claustrophobic.

Other Tests

Several other blossoming modalities exist that have been sparingly used in the evaluation of patients with suspected disk herniation, such as the following:

  • Magnetic resonance (MR) spectroscopy
  • MR neurography
  • Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction tests
  • Dynamic MRI
  • Open/standing MRI


Diagnostic selective nerve root blocks using bupivacaine have been used to pinpoint a particular nerve root as the culprit behind a patient's symptoms. This can prove useful when imaging shows disk herniations at two levels and there is confusion as to which of the two levels is contributing to the patient's symptoms. 



Conservative Treatment

Spontaneous improvement of low back discomfort has allowed ineffective treatments to perpetuate, because benefits have been ascribed to them when they are prescribed while the patient is still symptomatic but otherwise improving.

Hippocrates expected improvement in sciatica in 40 days, and the customary and contemporary guideline is 6 weeks. An often-quoted study suggested near-resolution improvement of 90% of patients within 6 weeks, but this study has been faulted because the criterion for patient recovery was failure to return to the observing physician.[31]  The prevalence of back problems is consistent with the failure of a subgroup of patients to improve and to have periodic recurrent episodes of disability.

Analysis of the effectiveness of treatments and attempts to restrict treatment to those modalities that have demonstrated efficacy are evidence-based medical practice. Bed rest has a long history of use but has not been shown to be effective beyond the initial 1 or 2 days; after this period, it is counterproductive. All conservative treatments are essentially efforts to reduce inflammation. Therefore, only a very short period of rest is appropriate; anti-inflammatories are of some benefit (because the pain is from inflammation of the nerve), and warm, moist heat or modalities may help. Tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α antagonism was experimentally shown to decrease inflammatory events in preclinical models.[32]

Activities should be resumed as early as the patient can tolerate. Exercise and physical therapy mobilize muscles and joints to facilitate the removal of edema and promote recovery. Muscle relaxants may offer symptomatic relief of the acute muscle spasms, but only in the early stages; however, all are centrally acting, they do not directly relax skeletal muscle, and they are also sedating.

For back pain without radiculopathy, chiropractic care has high patient satisfaction when performed within the first 6 weeks, and it has been shown to have good efficacy acutely from an evidence-based standpoint.[33]  Injections (eg, epidural) may be particularly helpful in patients with radiculopathy by providing symptomatic relief, which allows the patient to increase activities and helps facilitate rehabilitation.[34, 35]  Any nuclear material that is herniated may shrink as the proteoglycan deteriorates, loses its water-retaining ability, and turns from a grapelike object to a raisinlike object.

Arbitrary time schedules for improvement are inappropriate in any patient who continues to improve and whose function is relatively maintained. Traction in the acute setting may help muscle spasms, but it does not reduce the herniated nucleus pulposus (HNP) and has no good evidence of efficacy. The use of traction does not justify hospital admission; this is not cost-effective, and traction can be administered on an outpatient basis.

Long-term use of physical therapy modalities is no more effective than hot showers or hot packs are at home. A transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) unit may be subjectively helpful in some patients with chronic conditions. Patients should be encouraged essentially to compensate for intervertebral disk incompetence, to the extent possible, by means of muscular stabilization, as well as to maintain flexibility by initiating lifelong exercise regimens that include aerobic conditioning (particularly swimming, which allows gravity relief).

It is important to assess the body mechanics of every patient who is disabled from work. All patients should be educated about body mechanics and informed of the risk factors for faulty body mechanics, so that applications can be incorporated into individual work settings, including appropriate seating (eg, lumbar support). The lumbar facet joints are oriented relatively vertically, thus allowing forward flexion, but they impact each other when a person bends and then rotates. Repetitive bending and twisting have been noted to be epidemiologic problems in workers and may be associated with chronic pain and disability.[36]  Attention to lifting techniques and ergonomic modification at workstations may be appropriate.

Surgical Intervention

The classic presentation of an HNP includes the complaint of sciatica, with associated objective neurologic findings of weakness, reflex change, and dermatomal numbness. Various surgical procedures have been reported, which havev the common goal of decompressing the neural elements to relieve the leg pain. These procedures are most appropriate for patients with minimal or tolerable back pain who have an essentially intact and clinically stable disk. However, the hope of permanently relieving the back pain is a fantasy—a false hope.

The most common procedure for a herniated or ruptured intervertebral disk is a microdiskectomy, in which a small incision is made, aided by an operating microscope, and a hemilaminotomy is performed to remove the disk fragment that is impinging on the nerves.

Many patients who undergo microdiskectomy can be discharged with minimal soreness and complete relief of leg pain after overnight admission and observation. Same-day procedures are in the process of cautious development. Patients with dominant back pain have a different problem, even if HNP is present, and would require stabilization by fusion if unresponsive to well-managed appropriate therapy or arthroplasty (if there is an isolated level with good facet joints).

Minimally invasive techniques have not replaced this standard microdiskectomy procedure but can be summarized in two broad categories: central decompression of the disk and directed fragmentectomy. Outpatient treatment has been reported.[37, 38]

Central decompression of the disk can be performed chemically or enzymatically with chymopapain, by laser or plasma (ionized gas) ablation and vaporization, or mechanically by aspiration and suction with a shaver such as the nucleotome or percutaneous lateral decompression (arthroscopic microdiskectomy).

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) initially released and then withheld chymopapain for injection into lumbar disks because of adverse allergic reactions in patients; skin tests subsequently were used to determine sensitivity. However, the procedure continued to induce severe muscle spasms that could be far worse than those of an open operation and thus necessitated hospitalization and bedrest for up to 50% of patients.[39]

This morbidity must be considered a contradiction to the assertion by proponents that the enzyme is limited to the disk in the chemical digestion of the nucleus pulposus, because the muscles are severely affected, which would not be expected if the enzyme were contained. In addition, severe scarring in the spinal canal is noted routinely after this procedure.

The nucleotome and laser central decompressions have been shown only to equal placebo in effectiveness, and their use has declined. Superiority has not been demonstrated; patient selection is crucial, and the learning curve is steep.[40]

Further development of alternatives, such as nucleoplasty, and efforts to reduce disk pressure remain under study. The incidence of recurent herniation is small but may be irreducible. Efforts to seal the anulus are under investigation.

Directed fragmentectomy is similar to open microdiskectomy and has demonstrated greater effectiveness than placebo. This procedure uses an arthroscopic approach and a probe that directs a flexible pituitary rongeur from the center of the intervertebral disk toward the posterior anulus. Endoscopic techniques for performing a directed fragmentectomy and minimizing disruption of normal structures continue in development, but superiority has not been conclusively demonstrated despite the theoretical advantages of this minimally invasive approach.

With respect to the cervical spine, HNP customarily is treated anteriorly, because the pathology is anterior and manipulation of the cervical cord is not tolerated by the patient. The posterior approach is reserved for disk herniation that is confined to the foramen and for foraminal stenosis. An alternative to the anterior cervical spine approach is minimal disk excision; clinical stability following this procedure is dependent upon the residual disk, which is also true in cases where there is lumbar spine involvement with back pain. Removal of neural compression dramatically relieves radiculopathy; however, residual axial neck pain may result in significant impairment.

Anterior cervical interbody fusion is another intervention. Proponents of diskectomy alone assert equivalent results, but the adequacy of follow-up in those case reports is a significant concern. Patients with more severe disk degeneration, particularly myelopathy, would more uniformly undergo fusion. Anterior instrumentation is being used more commonly, and interbody cages are under consideration as a means of attaining more rapid rehabilitation and more consistent results. Multilevel disk replacement has been suggested as being at least similar to fusion.[41]