Spotting the Warning Signs of a Herniated Disc

If you’re like most people, you think of a herniated disc as something that could occur as you get older and reach retirement. But that’s not the case. 

Though age increases your risk, herniated discs often appear between the ages of 35-55 years. Your chances of developing a herniated disc at a younger age are higher if you engage in sports, work, or leisure activities that place pressure on your spine.

Richard B. Kim, MD, specializes in helping people with their herniated discs, beginning with conservative therapies and progressing to skilled spinal surgery when it’s needed to repair the disc.

Seeking early treatment helps you recover more quickly from a herniated disc, so to help you know what to look for, Dr. Kim put together this list of the top warning signs.

What you should know about herniated discs

Herniated discs occur when the firm fibrous substance in the center of a spinal disc pushes out through a weak area in the disc’s tough outer cover. You can have a contained herniated disc if the disc material stays inside the disc. But if the outer cover ruptures, the disc protrudes out.

You can develop a herniated disc in your neck or lower back. However, herniation is more likely to occur in your lower back. Your lower back sustains more daily pressure, making those discs vulnerable to the wear and tear that damages and weakens the outer cover.

Warning signs of a herniated disc

No matter where your herniated disc occurs, these are the top warning signs:

Discogenic pain

Discogenic pain refers to the fact that a disc is the source of your pain. Your pain may arise from the actual disc or from problems in your spine as the disc stops functioning. As a result, one of your warning signs is ongoing lower back or neck pain.

This pain could develop gradually as the herniated disc gets progressively worse, or appear suddenly. You may feel mild-to-severe pain, depending on the extent of the disc’s damage and your overall tolerance.

Damaged discs can also put extra stress on the supporting muscles and ligaments, leading to muscle cramping and stretched ligaments. Both problems contribute to localized back or neck pain.

Radiating nerve pain

Some people with a herniated disc never experience disc-related pain. But herniated discs are known for pushing against and pinching nerves. As the nerves become irritated, inflamed, and damaged, your first warning sign of a herniated disc may be radiating nerve pain.

Pinched nerves cause pain that travels along the nerve. When the affected nerve is in your lower back, your pain shoots down one or both legs. If your herniated disc is in your neck, the pain radiates down one or both arms.

This type of radiating nerve pain is often sudden and severe. Many patients describe it as an electric-shock type of pain, although it could also feel like a burning pain. 

Loss of mobility

Your ability to move your back, walk, and participate in daily activities may get progressively worse. This warning sign doesn’t stand alone; it appears along with increasing disc and nerve pain.

Tingling and numbness

Pinched nerves commonly cause a tingling sensation. You may feel this sensation along your arms and into your hands, or in your legs and feet.

Some people don’t feel tingling or pain. Instead, their compressed nerve leads to the loss of sensation and numbness in the affected limb.

Muscle weakness

Muscle weakness is not an early sign of a herniated disc. But if you ignore the first signs of disc and nerve pain, ongoing nerve compression in your spine can lead to muscle weakness in the affected limbs.

In severe cases, you can lose hand strength, develop poor coordination, and have problems with walking due to foot drop. Foot drop occurs when you have a hard time lifting the front of your foot, causing it to drag when you walk.

If you develop neck pain, back pain, or pain radiating down your arms or legs, we specialize in diagnosing the cause of your pain and developing customized treatment that gets you back to enjoying life.

At the first signs of a herniated disc, come in for a consultation with Dr. Kim. Call our office in Newport Beach, California, or schedule an appointment online.

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