Recognizing Herniated Disc Symptoms

Two people riding bikes at sunset

Many people will experience some form of back pain as they age. However, back pain does not necessarily indicate a slipped disc. Here, Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO), with locations throughout New Jersey, highlights some of the risk factors and symptoms related to a herniated disc.

What Causes a Herniated Disc?

Between each of the spine’s vertebrae are discs made of cartilage and collagen. These intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers when a person moves their spine. Over time, wear and tear can cause a disc to tear or leak. The disc may press against nearby spinal nerves. While a herniated disc can occur anywhere in the spine, they are most common in the lower back.

Some factors can increase the likelihood of a herniated disc, such as:

  • Age: Patients between the ages of 30 and 50 are at higher risk of developing a herniated disc.
  • Weight: Being overweight puts extra stress on the discs in the lumbar spine (lower back).
  • Gender: Men are more likely than women to have a herniated disc.
  • Repetitive activities: Frequent lifting, bending, twisting, or staying seated for long periods can lead to a back injury.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

For many patients, the first sign of a herniated disc is lower back pain that comes and goes. Other symptoms can include:

  • Numbness or tingling: If a disc is pressing on a spinal nerve, a patient may experience numb or tingling feelings in one of their arms or legs.
  • Muscle weakness: Herniated discs can cause muscle weakness. A patient may have difficulty maintaining a tight grip or standing up on their toes.
  • Sciatica: This is a type of nerve pain that can radiate from the buttocks down the back of one leg. It usually feels like a sharp or shooting pain.

Back or neck pain can be exacerbated by certain activities, such as bending or twisting. Symptoms can vary based on the location of the slipped disc. For example, patients with a herniated cervical disk may experience numbness in the arms, while a herniated lumbar disc tends to cause sciatica. Some patients have no symptoms and do not realize they have a herniated disc until it shows up on a routine scan.

Diagnosing Disc Problems

In addition to reviewing a patient’s symptoms and medical history, medical providers often will rely on a physical examination to diagnose a slipped disc. A pain management doctor, neurosurgeon, or orthopedic spine surgeon will move the patient’s body into different positions to identify the source of pain and will check reflexes and muscle strength. Additional testing might include:

  • Imaging: Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) often is used to check for a herniated disc, but X-ray images also may be taken to rule out other causes of back pain. A computed tomography (CT) scan or myelogram may be performed, as well.
  • Nerve tests: If a doctor suspects nerve damage, they may perform an electromyogram or a nerve conduction study to check the patient’s nerve signals and muscle activity.

Treatment Options

Patients who work in jobs that require frequent heavy lifting can reduce their risk of developing a herniated disc by practicing proper lifting techniques. Exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, and practicing good posture also can help protect the spine and the surrounding muscles. For patients who have developed a slipped disc, conservative treatment options can include:

In some cases, a slipped disc will require spinal surgery to relieve pressure on adjacent nerves. Surgical treatments can include a discectomy, a minimally invasive procedure in which the herniated portion of the disc is removed. This procedure must be performed by either a neurosurgeon or an orthopedic spine surgeon.  A patient who presents with a slipped disc and other signs of degenerative disc disease may require a procedure such as a laminectomy, in which a small portion of a vertebral bone is removed to relieve pressure on the spine. Severe cases of spinal deformity may require fusion surgery.

Choose a Trusted Spine Care Expert

The neurosurgeons and orthopedic spine surgeons at CNSO offer diagnosis and treatment for a wide range of spinal conditions, including degenerative disc disease, herniated disc, bone spurs, and spinal stenosis. Every patient receives a thorough evaluation from CNSO’s award-winning medical team to determine the best course of treatment. Serving patients in Northern New Jersey and the surrounding areas, CNSO is the state’s most comprehensive spine care center. To schedule an appointment, contact us today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics