Recognizing the symptoms can alert you to the possibility of having a herniated disc, but that doesn’t mean you can self-diagnose the problem.
You can’t always tell you have a herniated disc because several spine conditions cause similar symptoms. There’s only one sign that nearly always indicates a herniated disc, and that’s sciatica.
Here, Richard B. Kim, MD, explains how herniated discs develop, their top five symptoms, and when you should seek medical care for neck or back pain.
How discs become herniated
The rubbery discs between your vertebrae are essential for your spinal health and your ability to move. They absorb shock when you walk, run, and jump, and they create a cushion between the vertebrae that allows spinal flexibility.
Each disc has a gel-like center surrounded by a tough, fibrous cover. Unfortunately, the outer cover dehydrates and deteriorates over the years, a process that creates weak areas.
The disc herniates when the inner gel bulges out through a weak area. The area could also rupture, letting the gel leak out.
Herniated discs most often occur in the lower back (lumbar spine) because it withstands more pressure and movement than the rest of the spine. But you could develop the problem in your neck (cervical spine).
Symptoms of a herniated disc
The five most common symptoms of a herniated disc include:
Neck or lower back pain
The damaged disc alone can cause pain. The more the disc degenerates, the more spine pain you’ll experience in the area where the disc is located.
Since a damaged disc can’t function as well as a healthy disc, other painful problems occur in the spine. For example, the cartilage connecting discs to vertebrae may degenerate, leading to bone damage, bone spurs, and arthritis.
Damaged discs also put more stress on the supporting muscles, often causing muscle cramps and knots.
Bulging discs could press against the nearby nerves, while gel leaking from a ruptured disc irritates the nerves. In both cases, nerve inflammation and pain develop, adding to pain arising from the disc.
Pain and tingling in your arms or legs
Whenever a nerve is irritated or damaged, pain, tingling, and burning sensations travel along the nerve. A pinched nerve in your neck may cause these symptoms in your arms and hands. If the damaged nerve is in your lower back, the pain and tingling affects your legs and feet.
Sciatica refers to the hallmark symptoms of a pinched sciatic nerve: excruciating pain that suddenly shoots down one leg. This may be the most definitive sign because herniated discs cause 90% of all cases of sciatica.
Pain that’s worse during certain activities
The pain often flares up when you twist your neck or back. A lumbar herniated disc also causes more severe pain when sitting. This occurs because sitting puts excessive pressure on your lower back. By comparison, the pain feels better when you lie down or stand.
Severe or long-lasting nerve damage could cause weak muscles in your arms or legs. As a result, you have symptoms such as difficulty grasping and holding objects or trouble walking because it’s hard to lift the front of your foot.
When to seek help for a herniated disc
Neck and back pain improve with conservative care for most people, but total healing can take several months.
You should seek medical attention when:
- Your pain worsens
- Your pain lasts longer than two weeks
- Your pain stops you from participating in daily activities
- You have pain, tingling, or burning traveling down an arm or leg
- You lose strength in your arms or legs
Changes in bladder or bowel control are signs of a severe nerve injury requiring emergency medical attention.
You can depend on an expert diagnosis and treatment for neck and back pain, whether the underlying problem is a herniated disc or another spine condition. Call Richard B. Kim, MD, or request an appointment online today.