New York Spine Institute Spine Services

Signs and Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Signs and Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Signs and Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

By: Angel Macagno, M.D. FAAOS

Dr. Angel Macagno was born and raised in Argentina where, as a board-certified physician, he practiced Orthopedic surgery for 15 years before deciding to fulfill his lifelong goal of practicing medicine in the United States.

While the spine is a resilient part of the body, it experiences wear and tear throughout a person’s life. Unfortunately, this strain and pressure may lead to various spinal conditions, including a herniated disc.

The spine is a complex collection of bones, cartilage and nerves. Three natural curves create an S shape, which helps absorb shock and protect it from injury. The spine also comprises 33 vertebrae, intervertebral discs, facet joints, spinal nerves and soft tissues, allowing the body to stand upright and move freely. 

What Is a Herniated Disc?

herniated disc is damage or an injury to the spinal column. Round cushions between each vertebra are known as spinal discs, which serve as a buffer and prevent the vertebrae from grinding against one another when you move. A herniated disc happens when one of these discs experiences a tear, damage or leak. For this reason, other names for a herniated disc include bulging disc, protruding disc, slipped disc, pinched nerve or ruptured disc.

These terms indicate damage or injury to the spinal disc, causing back or neck pain. A herniated disc can cause two types of pain — disc-related pain or a pinched nerve. The spinal disc itself may be causing discomfort or pain if it causes spinal instability, known as degenerative disc disease.

Degenerative disc pain often causes low-level, constant pain around the disc with occasional episodes of severe pain. A herniated disc in the lower back may also cause pain from a pinched nerve. In cases of a pinched nerve, the disc itself is not painful, but it may be compressing a nearby spinal nerve.

A damaged spinal disc may leak fluid, causing nearby nerves to inflame or become irritated, which results in radicular pain or nerve root pain. Radicular pain often causes shooting, sharp pain that can radiate throughout the body, including down the legs and arms.

How to Tell if You Have a Herniated Disc

While a herniated disc can develop within any spinal disc, they are most common within the lower back, as the lower spine often experiences more wear, tear and stress. Ninety-five percent of patients with a herniated disc between 25 to 55 years old experience disc-related complications of the lower lumbar spine.

Herniated disc symptoms vary depending on the severity and where the injured disc is located. It is also possible to have a herniated disc with no pain because not all herniated discs cause noticeable symptoms. Some of the most common herniated disc symptoms include:

  • Pain in the back, arms or legs: A herniated disc in the lumbar spine often causes pain within your lower back that may radiate down your legs, arms or shoulders. This pain can worsen after sleeping, walking or sitting.
  • Weakness: A herniated disc can weaken the nerves that serve the surrounding muscles, causing you to stumble or have difficulty holding or lifting items.
  • Tingling or numbness: The affected nerves around a herniated disc can cause a radiating tingling or numbness in your limbs.
  • Neck stiffness: A pinched nerve or even too much bed rest can cause your neck to feel stiff, making it difficult to look down or turn your head from side to side.

Possible Causes of a Herniated Disc

Research finds approximately five to 20 individuals per 1000 adults experience a herniated disc, most commonly in the 30 to 50 age group.

There are two main causes of a herniated disc — age and trauma. Age is a leading factor in disc herniation. With age, the spinal discs begin to gradually lose fluid, a condition known as degenerative disc disease. Wear and tear on the spinal discs cause tears and cracks on the disc’s outer layer, where the interior fluid may leak from.

Trauma is another common cause of disc herniation. When the spinal disc is damaged, torn or overstressed, it can rupture because of high-impact trauma, such as a fall, collision or car accident. For example, a herniated neck disc may develop following a sports injury. Risk factors that may increase a person’s risk of developing a herniated disc include:

  • Weight: Excess weight places additional strain on your spine and spinal discs, increasing the risk of wear and tear. 
  • Genetics: Certain spinal conditions may be hereditary, so a person with a family history of spinal conditions have a genetic predisposition to experiencing disk herniation.
  • Smoking: Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen a spinal disc gets, leading it to break down more quickly.
  • Occupation: Your occupation can also influence your likelihood of developing a herniated disc, such as physically demanding or heavy-lifting jobs. 
  • Driving: Being seated for extended amounts of time in addition to the vibration of an engine can cause additional strain on your spine, increasing the risk of a herniated disc.

Herniated Disc Diagnostic Testing

A spinal specialist may recommend several tests to diagnose a herniated disc properly. Two of the most common herniated disc diagnosis tests include:

  • Imaging tests: Some common imaging tests include myelograms, X-rays, CT scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Imaging tests can help determine if there are signs of wear and tear or damage within the spinal disc or surrounding structures.
  • Nerves tests: Two of the most common nerve tests to diagnose a herniated disc include electromyograms (EMG) and a nerve conduction study. During an EMG, a physician will place a needle electrode through the skin into different muscles to test the electrical activity of these muscles at rest or when contracted. A nerve conduction study also tests electrical nerve impulses in the muscles and surrounding nerves.

Can a Herniated Disc Heal Itself?

Once you have confirmed your symptoms are due to a herniated disc, you have a couple of options — seeking treatment or waiting for it to heal itself. A herniated disc can get better on its own, although it can take some time. 

To allow it time to heal itself, you will need to follow these instructions:

  • Apply ice packs or heat: Cold packs are recommended initially to relieve pain and inflammation. Switch to gentle heat after a few days for relief and comfort.
  • Avoid bed rest: Consistently lying in bed can stiffen your muscles and joints and delay recovery. If pain persists throughout the day, lay in a comfortable position for 30 minutes before going for a short walk and keeping your blood flowing.
  • Slowly resume activities: With a herniated disc, it is important to take your time getting back to your regular activities. Let your pain be a guide of how much you can do, and don’t overexert yourself — especially when bending or lifting.

Available Herniated Disc Treatment Options at NYSI

Choosing treatment with a herniated disc doctor can allow for a quicker and more controlled recovery. After our physicians at New York Spine Institute (NYSI) diagnose a herniated disc, they will discuss potential treatment options with you to improve your herniated disc symptoms, minimizing the risk of the herniated disc worsening or causing severe symptoms in the future. 

Some of our most common and effective herniated disc treatments include:

  • Medication: Physicians will often recommend medicine for mild or moderate herniated disc symptoms before considering surgical treatments. Common medical treatments for a herniated disc include over-the-counter pain medicine, neuropathic drugs, muscle relaxers, prescription painkillers and cortisone injections.
  • Physical therapy: Physical therapy for herniated discs is a non-surgical treatment that teaches patients gentle exercises and stretches to alleviate pain, stress and compression on the spinal column and discs.
  • Spinal surgery: Herniated disc surgery is generally only recommended for patients who have severe symptoms and do not experience relief from non-surgical methods. Common herniated disc surgeries include laminectomy, spinal fusion or discectomy — all of which can be done with minimally invasive technology.

Trust Our Herniated Disc Specialists

The New York Spine Institute (NYSI) is a trusted source for accurate, timely diagnoses for various spinal conditions. Our team of experts understands orthopedic and spinal conditions can negatively impact daily life, and they work hard to help each patient regain mobility and return to leading a pain-free life.

Our physicians are proud to offer innovative spinal services, including neurosurgerypain management and diagnostics. We also provide scoliosis treatmentsorthopedic care and more.

Request an appointment online to learn more about herniated disc treatments and other spinal conditions.