Causes and Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Many doctors’ offices are flooded with people suffering from chronic back pain. One of the most common causes of this pain is due to of herniated discs. Herniated discs are sometimes referred to as slipped discs, ruptured discs, or bulging discs. They most often occur in the lumbar spine and cause pain in the lower back, into the buttocks and down the backs of your legs which is commonly referred to as sciatic pain.

This condition can be debilitating, making even simple everyday tasks difficult to complete. Herniated discs can be caused by a multitude of sources. Let’s review those reasons and provide you with a better understanding of the common causes and symptoms.

What is a Herniated Disc?

Your spinal column is made up of small bones that are stacked upon one another called vertebrae. A fluid-filled cushion is found in between each of the vertebrae forming little round shock absorbers. When one of the discs has a weak spot or is torn, the jelly-like fluid bulges past the firm outer layer and can press nearby nerves causing pain.

Typically, bulging discs occur in your lower (lumbar) back but can also happen in your neck (cervical), and upper back (thoracic).

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

Lumbar symptoms often hit you quickly even if there is nothing you can pinpoint as to the cause. Many times, people who have herniated discs show neither signs nor symptoms of the condition. However, if symptoms do present, these are the most common:

Lumbar Symptoms

  • Sciatica can be caused by a bulging disc. It is felt in the lower back and radiates down the backs of your legs, buttocks, and into your feet. In some cases, there is no back pain at all and only pain in the lower extremities.
  • Sharp, searing pain in the nerves of your legs or numbness and tingling.
  • Muscle weakness in the ankles and toes, making it difficult to flex those parts. As you walk, the foot will hang and drag, causing you to have to step higher.
  • A stiff back with or without throbbing pain. This can sometimes be accompanied by back spasms that alleviate the pain temporarily.
  • Pain that worsens with activities such as prolonged sitting or standing, slouching, laughing, sneezing, or a sudden movement.

Cervical Symptoms

  • Arm or shoulder pain
  • Radiating pain down your arm/hand
  • Pain when turning head or bending the neck
  • Numbness or tingling in the arm
  • Muscle weakness in the arms

Causes of a Herniated Disc

Herniated discs can be caused by many things, but a couple of specific situations make a person more prone to getting the condition.

  • Degeneration due to aging
  • Excessive weight
  • Back strain caused by heavy lifting or an aggressive unnatural movement
  • Genetics

Wear and Tear

As your body naturally ages, general use causes the discs to wear down, weaken, and become thinner. This condition is referred to as degenerative disc disease or DDD. The thinning of the cushions between your spinal vertebrae affects your facet joints which are responsible for stabilizing your spine. When that happens, the cartilage of the facet joints wears as well.

To try and counter the cartilage loss, your body creates bone spurs to stop the facet joints from moving too much and incorrectly. Bone spurs sometimes can cause narrowing in the spine spaces that can pinch nerves, causing a condition known as spinal stenosis.


Injury is another common reason people end up suffering from herniated discs. Trauma caused by incidents like a car accident can cause sudden harsh movements that can burst a disc.

Improper lifting and twisting can also cause a disc to tear. Sometimes it is a combination of both aging and injury. If a disc is weakened by wear and tear creating compromised areas, something as simple as a hard sneeze can get it to rupture.

If you experience any of these symptoms and suspect that you may be suffering from a herniated disc, our physicians can use certain diagnostic tests to confirm your diagnosis and better evaluate your pain and extent of the herniation. Together, we can then explore treatment options so that you can find relief from your pain.




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