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Herniated Disc: Care Instructions

Healthy and herniated discs

Your Care Instructions

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.

You may be able to heal your herniated disc with a few weeks or months of rest, medicine, and exercises. 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?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse advice line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter pain medicine, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), or naproxen (Aleve). Read and follow all instructions on the label.
  • Do not take two or more pain medicines at the same time unless the doctor told you to. Many pain medicines have acetaminophen, which is Tylenol. Too much acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be harmful.
  • Rest your back if your pain is severe.
  • Avoid movements and positions that increase your pain or numbness.
  • 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.
  • Your doctor may recommend a physiotherapy program, where you learn exercises to do at home. These exercises strengthen the muscles that support your lower back and prevent re-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 navel.
    • 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?

Go to

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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.