Signs and Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

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. There is a round cushion between each vertebra known as the spinal discs, which serve as a buffer. These discs 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. Other names for a herniated disc include bulging disc, protruding disc, slipped disc, pinched nerve or a 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 a 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.

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 the spine and spinal discs. This pressure increases 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 greatly increases the risk of many health concerns, including a herniated disc. Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen a spinal disc gets, leading them to break down more quickly.
  • Occupation: A person’s occupation can also influence the likelihood of developing a herniated disc. People with physically demanding jobs or who must lift heavy objects are at a greater risk of spinal conditions.
  • Driving: Being seated for extended amounts of time in addition to the vibration of an engine can cause additional strain on the spine, increasing the risk of a herniated disc.

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 arms or legs: A herniated disc in the lumbar spine often causes pain within the lower back that may radiate down the legs. Certain herniated discs may also cause pain to travel down the arms or shoulders.
  • Weakness: A general feeling of muscle weakness is also common with a herniated disc because it can weaken the nerves that serve the surrounding muscles. Because of this weakness, a person may stumble or have difficulty holding or lifting items.
  • Tingling or numbness: Finally, other common symptoms of a herniated disc are a radiating tingling or numbness in parts of the body served by a nerve the herniated disc is hindering.

Herniated Disc Diagnosis and Treatment Options

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.

After a physician diagnoses a herniated disc, they will discuss potential treatment options to improve herniated disc symptoms or minimize the risk of the herniated disc from worsening or causing severe symptoms in the future. Some of the most common and effective herniated disc treatments include:

  • Medication: A physician will often recommend medicine for mild or moderate herniated disc symptoms. In general, physicians recommend non-surgical treatments before considering spinal surgery to see if symptoms improve without invasive surgery. 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 is another effective non-surgical treatment for herniated discs. A physical therapist can show patients gentle exercises and stretches to alleviate pain, stress and compression on the spinal column and discs.
  • Spinal surgery: A spinal specialist may suggest spinal surgery in cases of severe herniated disc symptoms. Herniated disc surgery is generally only recommended for patients who do not experience relief from non-surgical methods. Common herniated disc surgeries include laminectomy, spinal fusion or discectomy.

Do You Need Treatment for a Herniated Disc?

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.