What Does a Herniated Disc Feel Like?

Two men lift a friend, which might strain on their backs and cause a herniated disc

As one of the leading causes of neck, back, or arm and leg pain, disc herniation (or slipped disc) is a common ailment. It typically occurs in people 30 to 50 years old and affects more men than women. But what exactly does a herniated disc in the back or neck feel like? Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics board-certified spine experts include neurosurgeons who will provide an accurate diagnosis, determine the cause of your symptoms, and provide care for patients throughout northern New Jersey. Learn about the symptoms of a herniated disc (mild to severe) and how they may affect the patient’s ability to function.

Neck and Back Pain

A spinal disc consists of a spongy, soft inner layer (nucleus) and a tougher outer layer (annulus). When a disc herniates, a portion of interior matter protrudes through the outer layer. Pain fibers in the ruptured annulus trigger a high level of pain in that area. Pain of an electrical sensation is the most common symptom reported by patients with herniated discs.

In addition to localized neck or back pain, the pain may radiate to other areas of the body. The sensation often is described as shooting, burning, or severe, sometimes taking people by surprise at the onset and traveling from the spine down an extreme. For example, a patient with a lumbar herniated disc may experience pain in the following areas:

  • Buttocks
  • Groin
  • Thigh
  • Calf
  • Foot

A patient with a cervical herniated disc may feel radiating pain in these areas of the body:

  • Shoulder blade
  • Upper trapezius muscle
  • Arm
  • Hand

In either cervical, thoracic, or lumbar herniated disc, the patient may feel constant pain or sensations that come and go with sustained activity, repetitive motion, and transitional movements. For instance, symptoms may be triggered by sitting, bending, lifting objects, or sneezing.

Numbness, Tingling, and Weakness

When the disc begins to protrude out of alignment and eventually rupture, it can directly compress or irritate a nearby nerve. This is where other sensations are felt by the patient, such as numbness and tingling in the areas listed above. Patients also may indicate they feel the following:

  • Painful pins and needles
  • Painful numbness
  • Electrical sensations

Patients with a ruptured disc also may feel weakness in their limbs. Weakness can present in the arm or hand for patients with a herniated disc in the neck or weakness in different parts of the leg when they have a herniated disc in their back. Fine motor skills, such as the ability to write, also may be affected. Weakness or loss of function is a surgical emergency.

Another common complaint among patients is “foot drop.” This presentation is not a disease in and of itself. It is a symptom of an underlying neurological problem – such as a disc pressing on the nerve root that controls the muscles that lift the foot. If the nerve is pinched, it cannot tell the corresponding muscle to activate. When this occurs, the patient finds it difficult to move the foot and toes, affecting the way they walk. Foot drop can be a sign of a surgical emergency.

Severe Herniated Disc Symptoms

In rare cases, a herniated disc may lead to more extreme symptoms. This can occur if the ruptured disc fully compresses the spinal canal, which includes the collection of nerves at the end of the spinal canal (cauda equina). Cauda equina syndrome (CES) is a condition that may arise if the disc herniation is very large. Severe disc herniation symptoms include:

  • Bladder or bowel issues
  • Trouble standing or walking
  • Saddle anesthesia (the loss of sensation in the areas of the body that would cover a saddle)

Patients experiencing any of the above symptoms should seek emergency medical care.

Why Do Patients Feel More Than Just Back or Neck Pain?

Radiculopathy is a medical term used to describe symptoms that travel from an affected area in the spinal column to another part of the body. A herniated disc leading to numbness, pain, tingling sensation and or loss of movement in the arm or leg is one example of radiculopathy. Radiculopathy can be caused by a herniated disc compressing or “pinching” the nearby nerve roots of that branch off the spinal cord and travel throughout the corresponding extremity.

Finding Symptomatic Relief

For many patients, symptomatic relief of a herniated disc comes with time and rest. If the symptoms just began, after diagnosis, the physician may recommend the patient rest for a few days and take over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers, steroids, muscle relaxers, and opioids. Applying hot/cold compresses to the affected area along the spine and seeing a physical therapist also may help. But if the symptoms continue after two weeks, the patient should seek advancement in their care which a neurosurgeon or orthopedic spine surgeon would direct as either physical therapy, imaging, or pain management in most cases. If those conservative measures do not resolve the care, then spine surgery may be an integral part of the patient’s journey to wellness.

Trust the Team at CNSO for Back and Neck Pain Relief

The dedicated surgical and non-surgical team at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine, and Orthopedics (CNSO) understands how neck and back pain can impact daily life. Patients will receive comprehensive and coordinated care so they can resume a healthy, less painful lifestyle free from disability. Care is provided by CNSO-leading board-certified neurosurgeons, orthopedic spine surgeons, interventional pain management physicians, physiatrists, rehabilitation specialists, and certified physical therapists. CNSO offers convenient locations across northern New Jersey, including Bergen, Passaic, Essex, Morris, and Hudson counties. Contact the doctors at CNSO today to request an appointment.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics