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Herniated Disc: Care Instructions

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 or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) 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. Non-steroidal 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 physiotherapist 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 or nurse advice line 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 or nurse advice line if:

  • You are not getting better as expected.

Where can you learn more?

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.