How to Tell if You Have a Herniated Disc – Symptoms & Causes

Man at his desk suffering with lower back pain from a herniated disc

If you suffer from back pain, you’re not alone. Unfortunately, 80% of Americans will experience back pain at some point. If you currently have pain in your lower back you’re probably wondering how to tell if you have a herniated disk.

It starts with understanding your spine

The spine has two primary functions:

  • It allows us to stand upright
  • It protects the spinal cord and nerves

What are vertebrae?

Vertebrae are small bones that, along with the spinal disks, are stacked together to form the spine. They bear a great deal of weight so we can stand upright.

Vertebrae form the spinal canal. The average person is born with 33 vertebrae ꟷ some of which fuse together as we age. Five vertebrae make up the lumbar spine area.

Inside the spinal canal is a tunnel that holds the spinal cord and nerves. The spinal canal protects them from injury.

What is a Spinal Disc?

Spinal discs are located between the vertebrae. They cushion the vertebrae and relieve pressure put on the spine. A disk is flat and round. Each vertebral disc is about a half-inch thick.

The outside of a disc (annulus) is tough, with a rubber-like consistency. The center of the disk contains a soft, jelly-like substance (nucleus).

You can think of them as shock absorbers for your vertebrae.

What is a Herniated Disc?

Sometimes the annulus develops a tear. This allows the nucleus to push all the way out of the disc. The disc is herniated. Another name for a herniated disc is a ruptured disc.

When this happens, the nerves in the spinal canal are no longer protected. Symptoms may develop as pressure irritates the spinal cord and nerve roots. Also, the spinal disc can release irritants to make nerve inflammation worse.

Sometimes the nucleus simply pushes against the annulus and causes a bulge. This too can cause cord and nerve irritation and pain.

An overweight woman with symptoms of a herniated disc in her lower back

Common Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

A herniated disc can develop in any part of the spine. Pain or other symptoms will develop in the area associated with the newly irritated nerve.

Sometimes, a person will have a herniated disc without pain. This means that the herniated disk isn’t pressing on, or touching, a nerve.

This is great news for the patient; it usually means there is no need to undergo surgery for correction of the herniation.

In fact, a person may even be unaware they have a herniated disk until it shows up on a medical image of their spine.

The most common place to develop a herniated disk is in the lower back. However, some people develop a herniated disk in their neck.

Pain in the Lower Back

A herniated disk usually causes pain in the lower back. Pain can also be in the thighs, buttocks, and calf. Sometimes it even extends down to your foot.

You may experience radiating numbness or tingling, or weakness. Your ability to walk properly can be affected.

If you have a loss of bladder control this usually indicates a serious medical condition that demands immediate medical attention.

Man rubbing his shoulder due to pain

Pain in the shoulder and arm

A herniated disk in the neck causes pain in the shoulder and arm. A sharp pain can even reach into your arm or leg. This usually happens after you cough or sneeze or make a sudden movement with your neck.

Again, numbness or weakness can occur in the affected areas. Your ability to hold an item securelymay even be affected.

What Causes a Herniated Disk to Occur?

Usually there is no single event that causes a disk to herniate. Rather, gradual wear and tear of the spine as you age is the usual culprit.

When a person gets older, the disks in the spine lose some water content and become less flexible. This makes the disks more likely to tear ꟷ even under the most minor strain.

At this point, the smallest movement, such as a slight twist to pick up a book from the floor, can cause a disk to herniate. This aging of the spinal disk is called disk degeneration.

A fall or sudden pressure to the back rarely causes disk herniation.

Package delivery man at work

Are You at Risk for a Herniated Disk?

As with many medical conditions, there are some things you can do to decrease your risk, while other factors are out of your control.

These things make you at greater risk for a herniated disk:

  • Being overweight
  • Smoking
  • Genetics
  • Having a physically demanding job
  • Being male between the ages of 20 and 50

How to Reduce Your Risk of a Herniated Disk

  • Get in the habit of picking up objects from the floor using your leg muscles ꟷ not your back muscles
  • Learn exercises to strengthen your trunk muscles
  • Practice good posture when standing and sitting
  • Don’t smoke
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep an active, not sedentary lifestyle

If you are experiencing back pain, contact our office for diagnosis and treatment options.

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