• Clinical science

Degenerative disc disease (Spinal disc herniation)


Degenerative disc disease refers to a variety of pathologies with displacement of disc material into the spinal canal, such as protrusion, herniation, and sequestration. Degenerative disc disease results in mechanical compression on either the spinal cord or a nerve root. The most common symptoms of disc disease are radicular pain in the dermatome of the compressed nerve root, muscle weakness, and loss of deep tendon reflexes in the indicator muscles. The location of the lesion can often be determined by the patient's neurological deficits. In most cases of lumbosacral disc disease, L5 nerve compression is present, which leads to reduced sensitivity in the lateral leg, dorsum of the foot, and weakness in extending the big toe. MRI confirms the diagnosis by showing the protruded/herniated disc. Conus medullaris syndrome and cauda equina syndromes are severe forms of disc herniation that may present with paresis, sensory deficits, and urinary and bowel incontinence. They require urgent decompression via surgical intervention. Most spinal disc herniations, however, can be treated conservatively with analgesia and by maintaining physical activity.



  • Age: most common at 30–50 years
  • Sex: >
  • Approximately 80% of all Americans suffer from significant back pain at some point in their lives
    • About 5% of back pain is a consequence of disc herniation
      • Lumbosacral disc herniation
        • L5–S1 (most common site)
        • L4–L5 (second most common site)
      • Cervical and thoracic disc herniations are rare


Epidemiological data refers to the US, unless otherwise specified.


Clinical features

A sudden decrease in pain concomitant with an increase in the degree of paralysis can be a warning sign of neuronal death!

Common radiculopathies

Sensory deficits Motor deficits Reduction of reflexes
C3/4 radiculopathy
  • Shoulder and neck area
C5 radiculopathy
C6 radiculopathy
  • From upper lateral elbow over radial forearm up to thumb and radial side of index finger
C7 radiculopathy
  • Palmar: fingers II–IV (II ulnar half, III entirely, IV radial half)
  • Dorsal: medial forearm up to fingers II–IV
  • Triceps and wrist flexors, finger extensors
C8 radiculopathy
  • Finger flexors
  • None
L3 radiculopathy
L4 radiculopathy
  • Extending from distal lateral thigh area over patella up to inner side of lower leg
L5 radiculopathy
  • Dorsolateral thigh, lateral side of the knee, anterolateral lower leg, dorsum of foot, big toe
S1 radiculopathy

S2 radiculopathy, S3 radiculopathy, S4 radiculopathy

  • Posterior aspect of thigh and lower leg (S2), perineum (S3-4), perianal (S4)
  • None


Subtypes and variants

Spinal cord compression

Etiology Onset Pain Motor symptoms Sensory symptoms Urogenital and rectal symptoms
Conus medullaris syndrome
  • Sudden bilateral onset
  • Symmetric, bilateral perianal numbness
  • Sensory dissociation
Cauda equina syndrome
  • Damage to or compression of the cauda equina with nerve fibers of L3–S5 (below L2)
    • Large posteromedial disc herniation, trauma, or tumors
  • Gradual unilateral onset

Conus medullaris syndrome and cauda equina syndrome are medical emergencies requiring immediate surgical intervention!




Differential diagnoses

Differential diagnoses of low back pain

Common etiologies Typical features Diagnostics Therapy
Musculoskeletal Muscle strain (most common cause of lower back pain)
  • Acute back pain and paravertebral stiffness and difficulty bending after physical exertion (e.g., heavy lifting)
  • No loss of sensory or motor function
  • Straight leg raise test negative
  • Percussion: tenderness over lumbar spine
  • Negative straight leg-raising maneuvers
Spinal stenosis
Spinal disc herniation
  • MRI: shows disc herniation
  • Conservative
    • Activity continuation, no bed rest
    • NSAIDs
  • Surgical decompression: in case of severe/progressive neurologic deficits
Degenerative spondylolisthesis
  • Older age
  • Possibly radicular syndromes, spinal claudication
Vertebral fractures
  • History of injury
  • Local pain on pressure, percussion, and compression

Bone metastases (extradural metastatic lesions)

Less commonly: intramedullary tumors (e.g., multiple myeloma, ependymomas, astrocytomas, metastases) and intradural-extramedullary (e.g., meningiomas, nerve sheath tumors)

  • MRI (urgent if spinal compression is suspected)
Infectious Spinal epidural abscess
Inflammatory Ankylosing spondylitis
  • Pain mostly at rest
  • Improves with activity
Reactive arthritis
Psoriatic arthritis
Others Abdominal aortic aneurysm
  • Pulsatile abdominal mass
  • Bruit on auscultation
  • Ultrasound (also for follow-up)
  • CT (in case of rupture)
  • Open or endoscopic grafting (tube or Y-prosthesis)
Cauda equina syndrome
  • Surgical decompression
Spinal epidural hematoma
  • Surgical decompression to avoid permanent neurologic dysfunction (laminectomy and evacuation of blood)

Acute spinal cord compression is a medical emergency. Conduct an MRI or CT myelography immediately and decompress the cord via IV steroids and/or surgery as soon as possible!

The differential diagnoses listed here are not exhaustive.


Conservative treatment

80% of all disc herniations are self-limiting and usually resolve within 4 weeks!

Surgical treatment