An Overview of Herniated Disc Symptoms

The hard bony vertebrae that make up your spine are cushioned by spongy cartilaginous discs. These discs basically serve as shock absorbers as your spine twists and turns. They also keep your vertebrae in position so they don't press against your nerves and spinal cord. These discs can become cracked and damaged by injury, normal wear and tear, or by disease. When this occurs, it is called a herniated disc. Some doctors may also refer to herniated discs as a slipped disc or a ruptured disc.

The herniated disc symptoms you may experience will depend on three main factors:

  • The exact location of the damaged disc along the spine
  • How extensively the disc is damaged
  • Whether or not the damaged disc is pushing against a nerve

Because you will want to seek medical treatment for a herniated disc, it is important to be able to distinguish between the symptoms of a herniated disc and ordinary sore back or neck muscles. Below you will find a list of herniated disc symptoms organized by where they occur on the spine:

Herniated Disc Symptoms In the Lower Back

Approximately 90% of all herniated discs occur in the lower back, also called the lumbar region. If the herniated disc is not pushing on a nerve, you may only experience lower back pain or no pain at all. However, if a herniated disc in this region pushes against the nerves, especially the sciatic nerve, you will experience pain in your buttock. This can lead to a condition called sciatica where the pain radiates down one of your legs to your ankles and feet. In more severe cases, you may experience foot drop where you would have difficulty raising your foot because of a weakened ankle and your big toe may become numb and difficult to stand on.

Herniated Disc Symptoms In the Neck

The next most common area for herniated discs is the first seven vertebrae of the neck region, also called the cervical region. In addition to neck and shoulder pain, you may also feel pain and weakness in your upper arm muscles. In more severe cases, the pain may radiate down the arm and cause numbness or tingling in the fingers.

Herniated Disc Symptoms In the Upper Back

Herniated discs in the upper back between the neck and lower back are relatively rare, and when they do occur, they usually asymptomatic. However, when they do produce symptoms, you may feel pain in your upper back or in your chest.

In addition to the specific symptoms associated with each region, you may also experience deep muscle pain and muscle spasms.

There are also two other spinal conditions that you should be made aware of that produce symptoms very similar to those produced by herniated discs. They are discussed below:

1. Bulging Disc In Neck

This occurs when a neck disc collapses and bulges out but does not crack open like a herniated disc. The bulging disc in neck can push on nerves and the spinal cord and produce exactly the same conditions as a herniated disc in the neck. Bulging discs are usually caused by deterioration of the discs due to aging so they are much more common in older people than in younger people. Bulging discs can also occur in the lower back but not nearly as frequently.

2. Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is caused by the narrowing of the spinal canal surrounding the spinal cord. Since this can pinch against the spinal cord and the surrounding spinal nerves, spinal stenosis symptoms can be very similar to herniated disc symptoms. These include pain, tingling, and numbness. If you find that you can alleviate the pain by bending forward, this may mean you have spinal stenosis instead of a herniated disc because bending over tends to open up the spinal canal a little taking some of the pressure off the spinal cord and nerves. Spinal stenosis tends to progress very slowly as the spinal canal narrows while the pain from herniated discs can come on suddenly, although not always.

Since the symptoms can be so similar between different spinal issues, it is always a good idea to consult a physician and ask them to run some diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your pain. This is the only way you can know for sure.