How to Tell If You’ve Herniated a Disc

A herniated disc can significantly impact your health and quality of life. Understanding the causes and symptoms of herniated discs will help you know whether you could have this condition. Because a herniated disc can cause significant health problems, it is important to get an accurate diagnosis from an orthopedic spine surgeon. Treatment may be necessary to ease your symptoms, improve your quality of life, and prolong your health.

What is a Herniated Disc?

Between the bones of your spine are shock absorbers, known as “discs”. These act like cushions to help ensure that your back moves smoothly and that the bones of your spine do not rub against each other. Spinal discs are found in both the neck region (“cervical discs”) and back region (“lumbar discs”). When a disc is injured or degenerates over time, its tougher exterior may develop a crack through which the soft center of the disc pushes through. This is known as a “herniated disc”.

While some herniated discs may not cause any symptoms, in many cases, a herniated disc will press against the nerves of the spine, causing pain, dysfunction, and other symptoms. These can lead to more serious health problems in the future. If you have a herniated disc, it is important to get herniated disc treatment to alleviate your current symptoms and prevent long-term negative effects on your well-being.

Causes of Cervical and Lumbar Disc Herniations

There are several potential causes of lumbar and cervical disc herniations. One is a traumatic injury to either the neck or back. Another is when instability in the spinal facet joints forces a disc to shift out of place (“slipped disc”). Often, herniated discs are caused by osteoarthritis or gradual degeneration over time.

Individuals who have experienced a traumatic neck or back injury, slipped disc, osteoarthritis, or general wear and tear to the neck and back over time are at higher risk of having a herniated disc. If you have experienced any of these in combination with one or more of the symptoms listed below, you should make an appointment to be evaluated by an orthopedic spine surgeon.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc in Your Back

Common symptoms of a herniated lumbar disc include:

  • Pain, potentially significant or debilitating, in the lower back
  • Stiffness in the lower back
  • Burning, numbness, or weakness in the legs
  • Symptoms may spread down the lower back to the buttocks
  • Symptoms may radiate down one leg or both legs

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc in Your Neck

Common symptoms of a herniated cervical disc include:

  • Pain or stiffness in the neck
  • Pain that radiates to the arms or upper back
  • Headaches
  • Burning, numbness, or weakness down the arms
  • Symptoms may be in one or both arms
  • Neurological issues with balance, walking, using hands, and even bladder function (all caused by more severe cervical disc herniations)

Should I Get Treatment for My Herniated Disc?

If you think you may have a herniated disc, you should meet with an orthopedic spine surgeon to evaluate your condition. Herniated cervical discs in particular should not be ignored because they can have serious long-term consequences, including neurological issues and even irreversible paralysis. Your spine surgeon will be able to recommend whether you should begin treatment and what type of treatments to consider.

If your herniated disc is putting pressure on your spinal nerves and/or causing symptoms, treatment will most likely be recommended. Treatment may start with conservative options such as physical therapy, medication, bracing, spinal injections, and/or lifestyle modifications. For more serious cases, or where conservative treatment has not been effective, surgery may be recommended.

Surgical treatments for disc herniations include:

  • Disc Replacement Surgery: Either lumbar disc replacement or cervical disc replacement can replace the herniated or degenerative disc with a fully mobile artificial disc to alleviate symptoms and allow the spine to continue moving in a natural, physiological way.
  • Muscle Sparing and Minimally Invasive Fusion: Muscle sparing and minimally invasive fusion surgery, which does significantly less damage to the soft tissues and muscles, can surgically remove the herniated disc and insert a bone graft and implant to fuse the vertebrae together. The results can alleviate symptoms but will restrict some movement.
  • Spinal Stenosis Surgery: For those with spinal compression caused by arthritis (“stenosis”), either cervical stenosis surgery or lumbar stenosis surgery may be performed. This surgery removes the herniated disc and, where appropriate, extracts small portions of excess bone or arthritic debris to decompress the spine.
  • Anterior Cervical Procedures: Anterior cervical surgeries such as anterior cervical discectomy and fusion (ACDF) or anterior cervical corpectomy and fusion can be performed to remove the herniated disc with less damage to the soft tissues. The results can alleviate symptoms but will usually restrict some movement.

If you think you may have a herniated disc, schedule an appointment with an orthopedic spine surgeon. Getting a clear diagnosis will give you peace of mind and help you get the treatment you may need for better health and well-being.

Dr. Stephen Pehler is a board-certified and fellowship trained orthopedic spine surgeon in the Denver area. With training in both orthopedics and neurosurgery, he offers excellent treatment options and outcomes for patients with herniated discs as well as other neck and back problems. To book your appointment with Dr. Pehler, call 303-695-6060 or complete our online contact form today.