5 Telltale Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Oct 05, 2023
5 Telltale Symptoms of a Herniated Disc
Herniated spinal discs are a leading cause of chronic lower back pain, leg pain (sciatica), and impaired mobility. They can also cause persistent neck pain and limited function. Learn how to spot the telltale warning signs of this common problem.  

As your body’s central support structure and nerve center, your spine plays a critical role in your ability to function normally and move with ease. What your spine does for your body is a lot like what your discs do for your spine: facilitate normal function and movement.   

But if one of your spinal discs herniates, or tears open, its leaking inner material can irritate and inflame nearby nerves and cause localized discomfort — usually in your lower back or neck — as well as pain and nerve symptoms that radiate into other areas of your body.

At Interventional Sports and Pain Management Associates in Humble and Baytown, Texas, board-certified pain management specialist Dr. Okezie N. Okezie knows that recognizing the telltale signs of a herniated disc is the first step in being able to prevent worsening back pain and disc-related complications, including chronic sciatica. 

Here, we discuss spinal disc anatomy and function, explore five common warning signs of disc herniation, and explain why prompt expert evaluation is so important.   

A short tutorial on spinal disc function

Intravertebral discs are round, donut-like cushions situated between the bones (vertebrae) of your spine. These resilient “cartilaginous joints” help to:

  • Preserve proper spacing between spine bones  
  • Maintain healthy dynamic spinal alignment 
  • Facilitate fluid spinal movement and flexibility
  • Protect your spine from motion’s “shock force” 

To provide optimum protection for your spine while facilitating fluid movement, each disc consists of two parts: A tough, rubbery exterior (annulus fibrosus) establishes proper spacing and enables full range of motion through your spine, and a soft, gel-like interior (nucleus pulposus) acts as an effective shock absorber.

Five warning signs of a herniated disc

Disc herniation occurs when a rip or rupture in a disc’s tough exterior shell allows some of its spongy nuclear material to seep out into the spinal canal, often onto nearby nerve roots. 

Lower back or neck

Most herniated discs are in the lower back (lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine). Often, the affected disc is in an early stage of degeneration when the injury occurs, usually because of older age, excess weight, poor posture, a sedentary lifestyle, or improper lifting techniques. 

Disc injury indicators

Although the exact nature of the symptoms you might experience with a herniated disc vary depending on its location, these five signs are common indicators of a likely disc injury:

1. Local pain and stiffness 

Whether it’s in your lower back or neck, a herniated disc is likely to cause localized pain and stiffness just over the injured area. This dull, achy discomfort may persist continuously, or come and go intermittently, depending on what you’re doing.

2. Movement-induced pain

Herniated disc pain tends to worsen with certain movements. A herniated cervical disc might trigger intensified neck pain when you turn your head, while a herniated lumbar disc might cause a sharp pain flare any time you bend, twist, or otherwise reposition your upper body.   

3. Radiating nerve pain 

This symptom is a key indicator of a possible disc herniation. It occurs when the disc’s leaking nuclear material irritates or inflames a nearby spinal nerve root, causing pain sensations that radiate across the entire length of that nerve.

In the lower back, radiating nerve pain from a herniated disc usually affects the sciatic nerve root, causing moderate to severe pain through the hip and buttocks and down the back of one of your legs. In the neck, radicular pain typically shoots down through one shoulder and into the arm, sometimes reaching as far as your hand and fingers. 

4. Numbness and/or tingling 

Pain isn’t the only neurological symptom that can radiate outward from an irritated or inflamed spinal nerve root. It’s also common for a leaking herniated disc to cause radiating numbness, tingling, or pins-and-needles sensations in one of your legs or arms. 

5. Muscle weakness

A severe or long-standing herniated disc can cause significant neurological interference and muscle weakness. A herniated cervical disc can leave your shoulder and arm feeling weak, while a herniated lumbar disc can drain the strength from the muscles in your leg and foot. 

The importance of a prompt evaluation 

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to have an expert evaluation as soon as possible. Early care is often all it takes to resolve a herniated disc, while delayed intervention can mean having to deal with a much bigger — and far more painful — problem.      

Initial treatment strategies for herniated discs aim to prevent further damage and promote healing. If your problem is relatively minor, you may be able to find relief simply by adjusting your activity levels and taking anti-inflammatory pain relievers. 

Severe or persistent symptoms may benefit most from pain relief procedures, physical therapy, and lifestyle interventions like weight loss. 

Think you may have a herniated disc? We’re here to help. Call your nearest Interventional Sports and Pain Management Associates office in Humble or Baytown, Texas today, or click online to schedule a visit with Dr. Okezie any time.