Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2008;78(7):844

See related article on lumbar disk pain.

What is a disk injury?

The bones in your spine are separated by disks that act as cushions. When you use your back in ways you're not used to, such as lifting something heavy, the disks may move and cause pain. One kind of disk injury is when a disk slips out of place and presses on the nerves in your back. A disk can also burst, which causes fluid to spill out and irritate the nerves.

Low back pain may also shoot down the back of your thigh and into your calf and foot. The pain may be worse when you lift that leg while lying down and keeping your knee straight. You may also feel tingling or numbness in your leg.

How is the pain treated?

Most of the time, your back will feel better on its own. It may take six weeks to a year to get better. Your doctor may recommend pain medicines such as acetaminophen (one brand: Tylenol) or ibuprofen (one brand: Motrin). Putting heat or ice on your back for 10 to 15 minutes may also help.

Do not rest your back for more than two days. This will weaken your back and delay the healing. Ask your doctor for exercises that you can do to help the pain and keep you active. If these treatments don't help, your doctor may prescribe stronger medicines or give you steroid shots in your back.

Will I need surgery?

If your pain does not get better, you may need surgery. Your doctor may order a test to look at your spine. This shows how severe the injury is and will help your doctor decide if you need surgery. Your doctor may also take an x-ray to see if you have another medical problem that is causing the back pain.

People who have surgery for a disk injury may feel better more quickly. However, people who have surgery have about the same amount of pain after two years as those who do not have surgery. Ask your doctor what is best for you.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

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