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9 Risk Factors That Can Lead to a Herniated Disc

Sep 14, 2023
9 Risk Factors That Can Lead to a Herniated Disc
Herniated spinal discs are a leading cause of chronic lower back pain and limited mobility. Learning which factors increase your chances of developing this common problem is the first step toward managing your risk and protecting your health.

As seasoned interventional pain management experts who specialize in physical medicine and spine care, our skilled team of board-certified specialists at Riverhills Neuroscience knows that when it comes to chronic back and neck pain, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. 

And when it comes to preventing disc-related back or neck pain, personal risk management is key. Here, we discuss five risk factors that increase your chances of developing a herniated disc and explain what you can do to mitigate your risk, protect your health, and stay active. 

Basic facts about spinal discs 

Situated between each vertebra of your spine are small, round, pillow-like cushions called discs. These tough, rubbery cushions help:

  • Maintain proper spacing between vertebrae  
  • Preserve dynamic spinal alignment 
  • Facilitate fluid torso movement and flexibility
  • Function as shock absorbers for your spine 

To provide optimum protection and facilitate fluid movement, each spinal disc consists of two parts: A tough exterior (annulus fibrosus) provides proper spacing and enables a full range of motion through your spine, and a soft, gel-like interior (nucleus pulposus) provides effective shock absorption. 

A herniated disc occurs when a tear or rupture in a disc’s tough exterior annulus allows some of its spongy nucleus material to seep out into the spinal canal, often onto nearby nerve roots. Discs that become herniated are often in an early stage of degeneration and are typically located in the lower back (lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine).  

Risk factors for disc herniation

As one of the most common causes of chronic lower back and sciatic nerve pain as well as persistent neck and shoulder pain, a herniated spinal disc can restrict your range of motion, limit your mobility, make daily tasks more challenging, and diminish your quality of life. 

Like virtually all health problems, certain factors and circumstances — some uncontrollable, and some modifiable — can increase your chances of developing a herniated disc. Significant risk factors that can lead to a herniated disc include:

1. Getting older

Discs and their supporting ligaments degenerate with age. As you get older, even a relatively minor strain or twisting movement can cause an age-weakened disc to rupture and herniate. 

2. Male gender

Men are twice as likely as women to experience slipped, ruptured, or herniated spinal discs. 

3. Family history

Some people have a higher-than-normal risk of developing a herniated disc because of a genetic predisposition that makes the problem more common in their family.   

4. Being overweight 

Excess body weight places extra stress and strain on your shock-absorbing discs, particularly those in your lower back; having weak core muscles in your abdomen and back intensifies the problem.  

5. Being sedentary

A sedentary, low-movement lifestyle increases your chances of disc herniation, largely because frequent sitting puts increased pressure on the lower spine, and a lack of exercise leaves your supporting core muscles in weak shape.  

6. Smoking cigarettes

Smoking reduces blood flow to spinal discs, depriving them of oxygen and nutrients. This effectively speeds up their degeneration — and hinders normal healing when they rupture. 

7. Improper lifting 

Improper biomechanical technique — using your back rather than your legs — when lifting a heavy object can place inordinate pressure on your spinal discs that leads to swift rupture.  

8. Physical occupation 

Having a physically demanding job, especially one that requires repetitive lifting, pulling, bending, and twisting, increases the likelihood of disc herniation and other lower back issues.

9. Frequent driving 

Likewise, an occupation that requires frequent driving can place excess strain on the spinal discs in your lower back through long stretches of sitting combined with the constant vibration of the roadway.    

Start mitigating your risk today

While you can’t change certain risk factors, you can mitigate your chances of developing a herniated disc by acting on the factors within your control. For most people, this means working on one or more of the following:

  • Reaching a healthy weight 
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Practicing good posture
  • Learning safe lifting form
  • Quitting all tobacco use

Do you have questions about spine health protection or back pain prevention? We have answers. Call or click online to schedule a visit at Riverhills Neuroscience. We have offices in Crestview, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio.