Ruptured and Herniated Disc Animation

A Common, Painful Spine Condition

Your doctor has just told you that your back pain is being caused by a “ruptured disc” or a “herniated disc” in your spine. It sounds bad, sure, but what does it really mean?

This minute-long video animation will help you understand what happens when a disc in your spine (called an intervertebral disc) ruptures, and how it can contribute to your back pain. Understanding the causes of herniated or ruptured discs can be the first step in helping you get rid of the resulting back pain—and avoid it in the future.

Your spinal column consists of 33 vertebrae which stretch from the base of your skull to your pelvis. Vertebrae are bones which are stacked on top of each other and help to provide stability, flexibility, and mobility in your back. The vertebrae are surrounded by a network of nerves which travel from the brain and spine throughout the rest of our body.

Your vertebrae are cushioned by intervertebral discs, shock absorbing pads which reduce the impact of your movements. The discs are made up of a tough outer shell (annulus fibrosus) and a jelly-like inner substance (nucleus pulposus). 

An intervertebral disc bulges or ruptures as the inner gel pushes through weakened areas of the disc’s outer shell. This process may occur in several stages—a slight protrusion may initially form along the perimeter of the disc before the gel begins to seep out. This bulge can press against your spinal nerves, causing you pain.  In the illustration below, these are the degeneration and prolapse stages.


As the bulge gets worse, the outer shell may burst open completely, allowing the gel to flow out into the spinal cord. Chemicals in the gel can lead to irritation and swelling in the nerves, which can intensify your pain.  This is represented by the extrusion and sequestration stages in the illustration.

Back injuries are a major cause of herniated discs. Examples of injuries that can lead to a bulging or ruptured disc include car accidents, sports accidents, and even lifting a heavy object the wrong way. In addition to injuries, herniated discs may also be caused by degeneration—the normal wear and tear that takes place on our spines over time.

Depending on the extent of the degeneration or injury to your spine, you may suffer from just 1 herniated disc, or several discs may bulge or rupture at a time. Your doctor will prescribe a set of treatments for the condition based on your symptoms. Common treatments for herniated discs include prescription and over-the-counter pain medications, spinal injections, massage, and other alternative treatments. Most people with herniated discs can be successfully treated without surgery.


  • Eidelson SG, Fessler RG, Garfin SR, Richeimer SH, Rodts GE, Spinasanta SA. Save Your Aching Back and Neck: A Patient’s Guide, 2nd ed. San Diego, CA: SYA Press and Research Inc.; 2002
Updated on: 02/23/17