How to Tell If You Have a Herniated Disc

How to Tell If You Have a Herniated Disc

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.

Muscle weakness

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:

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.

You Might Also Enjoy...

Why Do I Always Have Left-Side Neck Pain?

If you “always” or frequently have neck pain on either side of your neck, you should schedule an evaluation with a skilled neurologist. Ongoing or severe neck pain signals problems that typically worsen and can lead to permanent nerve damage.

Understanding the 5 Main Causes of Sciatica

Sciatica affects 40% of adults at least once in their lifetime, and for many, it turns into a chronic and often debilitating condition. Though sciatica has numerous causes, they all lead to one problem: a pinched sciatic nerve.

Determining Your Best Treatment for Glioblastoma

Glioblastoma is a cancerous brain tumor that rapidly infiltrates the surrounding tissues. It’s essential to seek prompt medical attention and make quick treatment decisions. Here, our doctor shares common glioblastoma warning signs and treatments.

When Should I Consider Surgery for Chronic Back Pain?

If you have chronic back pain, chances are you’ll reach a time when the pain gets so severe you wonder if you should consider surgery. Here are three signs that surgery to repair the root cause is the best way to relieve your pain.

Tips to Prevent Spinal Osteoarthritis

Nagging low back pain could arise from several possible causes, but one of the most common is spinal osteoarthritis. The key to preventing this painful condition is following a healthy lifestyle throughout your adult life.