Is It Back Pain or a Herniated Disk?

By , Spine Surgeon

Back pain is one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor. Commonly, back pain is the result of strained muscles or ligaments from lifting something too heavy, poor posture, or sleeping in an awkward position. But your discomfort could be due to something else – a herniated disk. 

There are some signs that you may need to discuss with your doctor to be sure.

What is a Herniated Disk?

Spinal disks are soft cushions between the bones (vertebrae) in your spine. Sometimes called a slipped or ruptured disk, a herniated disk occurs when some of the disk’s jelly-like interior pushes through a tear in its tough outer ring.

Herniated disks may occur in the neck, but are most common in the lower back. They usually affect one side of the body. Fortunately, herniated disks often can be treated without surgery.

Here are some signs your back pain may be a herniated disk:

  • If the disk is in your lower back, you may have pain in the buttocks, thigh, and calf, and possibly in the foot. If the disk is in your neck, you’ll feel pain in your arm and shoulder. In both cases, you might feel a burning or sharp pain shoot down your arm or leg when you are in certain positions, or when you cough or sneeze.
  • You may experience tingling or numbness that radiates from the affected nerves.
  • Muscle weakness in the affected areas can cause you to stumble or make it difficult to lift or hold items.

All of these warrant a visit with your doctor, but you should seek immediate medical treatment if you exhibit any of these symptoms:

  • Significant pain, weakness, or numbness that hampers your daily activities
  • Incontinence or difficulty urinating, even if your bladder is full
  • A progressive loss of sensation in the inner thighs, back of the legs, and the area around the rectum (saddle anesthesia)

Protect Your Back

It can be difficult to determine the cause of a herniated disk because it is most often related to age-related wear, referred to as disk degeneration. This causes the disk to be more apt to damage. Traumatic accidents typically do not cause herniated disks, but here are some risk factors:

  • Family history
  • Excess body weight, as extra pounds stress the disks in your lower back
  • A job that involves repetitive lifting, pulling, and pushing, or a lot of bending sideways and twisting
  • Smoking, which decreases the oxygen supply to your spinal disks and causes them to break down more quickly

While you can’t do anything about your family history, there are some steps you can take to lower your risk for a herniated disk:

  • Do exercises that strengthen the trunk muscles – the muscles along and around your spine – to help support and stabilize your spine. Consult with your primary care physician when considering a new exercise plan.
  • Practice good posture and use proper techniques for lifting objects to reduce pressure on your disks.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Don’t smoke, vape, or use tobacco products.

Download the Virtua Health Guide to Back Pain or call 856-246-4272 to request a consultation with a Virtua back pain specialist.

Updated August 17, 2020

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