Typically, as humans, our spines aren’t really top of mind until you feel pain – and that’s where I would come in as a spine surgeon. But by then, it’s often a much more severe condition and requires much more drastic treatment.
Wait, what exactly is a herniated disc?
A herniated disc, sometimes called a slipped disc or ruptured disc, is one of the leading causes of neck, back and leg pain. It can happen anywhere along the spine with any of the 23 intervertebral discs, but herniated discs occur most often in the lower back.
When you herniate a disc, essentially the inner, gel-like portion of the structure bulges out of the tough outer exterior that is your spinal cord, pressing against and pinching sensitive nerves. The discs are important because they act as shock absorbers for the spinal bones, necessary for day-to-day life.
In my time as a neurosurgeon at an academic institution, I’ve seen a spectrum of herniated disc symptoms depending on the severity of the ruptured disc from severe pain, to bladder or bowel dysfunction – but today, we’ll be going over the most common warning signs to help you ensure you’re listening to your body.
So, if you’re wondering “how do I tell if I have a herniated disc?”, keep reading.
What Are The Common Herniated Disc Warning Signs?
1. Radiating pain in your arms – or other sciatica-like symptoms in your lower back and leg.
The herniated disc can compress the sciatic nerve, which is located in your lower back, causing pain to radiate in your lower back, down your leg and sometimes even into your foot. This could also present as a sharp, burning or shooting sensation.
2. Weakness, numbness or abnormal tingling in your arms or legs
If a herniated or slipped disc is pinching a nerve, it can lead to weakness, pain, numbness and tingling sensations. Typically, you will feel these sensations in the arm or leg closest to the nerve being pinched.
3. Symptoms that get worse when you cough, sneeze, sit, or stand for long periods
We all know that rest tends to help pain, and that’s true for a herniated disc too – even if the pain relief is temporary. The pain from a herniated disc will usually worsen when you are active, but coughing, sneezing, sitting, or standing for long periods may also make the pain worse. This is because there is more pressure being put on the nerve, which is in turn sending a pain signal to your brain.
When Should I Seek Medical Advice?
While all of the above herniated disc symptoms and warning signs are signs to seek medical attention at your earliest convenience, there are some that should be treated more urgently when felt. This is because without proper treatment, these symptoms could cause serious complications.
1. Loss of bowel and/or bladder control & loss of feeling in your legs:
These symptoms can be caused by a herniated disc in your lower back, but they can be tied to a rare but serious spinal disorder that requires immediate medical attention, Cauda Equina Syndrome.
2. Loss of balance and fine motor skills, and muscle weakness:
These symptoms indicate spinal nerve compression. While this is fixable, it does literally mean that the spinal cord itself is being compressed. This is most often caused by herniated discs in your neck, but mid-back and lower back herniated discs could lead to this as well.
What Does Herniated Disc Treatment Consist of?
The treatment plan for a herniated disc will depend on your medical history, the severity of your condition, and the duration of your symptoms – if you believe you’re suffering from a herniated disc, you should contact a medical professional for assessment. Most typically treatment will consist of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose and then will include a selection of the following treatments:
- Over-the-counter or prescription painkillers
- Muscle relaxants if the disc compression is causing muscle spasms
- Cortisone or steroid injections to reduce swelling and inflammation
- Hot or cold therapy to reduce swelling and increase circulation for better healing
- Physical therapy for guided exercises and other approaches to minimize pain
- In severe cases, herniated disc surgery to remove the disc.
It’s entirely possible to heal fully from a herniated disc if proper treatment is pursued – but it’s crucial that you take note of any warning signs and symptoms and seek proper care from a licensed professional.
Jenkins NeuroSpine is the top choice for spine pain in the tri-state area, giving every patient access to a nationally-renowned spine surgeon and industry-leading technology in our 360-degree-treatment clinics.