Discs are the shock absorbing elements of the spine, and are found between each vertebra in three areas of the spine: the neck (cervical region), mid-back (thoracic area), and lower back (lumbar spine).
These three regions give our spine mobility. Spinal discs are a cartilaginous ring surrounding an inner jelly. A herniated disc refers to an injury that causes the jelly to squeeze out of place.
Disc herniations are most common in individuals from thirty to fifty years old. Youth helps preserve disc function early in life, while age tends to degenerate the discs enough that herniation is unlikely.
Herniated Disc Symptoms and Causes
Get to know the common herniated disc symptoms and causes now.
1. Numbness or Tingling
Herniated discs come with a myriad of symptoms. Some herniations are completely painless while others cause severe dysfunction. Numbness or tingling (neuralgias) is a common symptom of spinal disc herniations. They can occur together or separate.
When the herniated disc is seen in the cervical area, these neuralgias tend to occur in the arms, hands, and fingers. The sensation is often described as a ‘falling asleep’ or ‘pins and needles’ sensation.
Herniated discs in the lumbar spine impact the legs. Neuralgias occur because there is pressure on the area of the nerve that carries sensation. It is very individualized.
A herniated disc in the same area could create numbness in the toe of one individual while causing tingling and pain in the thigh of another.
2. Muscle Weakness
When a spinal disc herniates, the jelly that squeezes out can apply pressure to a nerve. Spinal nerves carry pain and other sensations as well as motor function. Direct pressure on the aspect of the nerve that carries motor ability will cause muscle weakness.
Herniated discs tend to create weakness in the extremities, and at times the muscle weakness is profound enough to cause visible muscle atrophy. It is not uncommon, however, for a patient to be completely unaware of the muscle weakness.
During an examination, a physician is able to isolate individual muscle actions to detect the problem early. It is also possible to have muscle weakness without any other symptom such as pain, numbness, or tingling.
Weakness from a herniated disc may be a very serious complication and should always be evaluated by a healthcare professional.
3. Pain with Certain Movements
The human spine allows for extensive mobility and each individualized level of the spine consists of two adjacent vertebrae and the inter-vertebral disc between them. When analyzed, the vast majority of movements occur through the spinal disc with the vertebrae providing stability.
This means every movement that doesn’t hold the area of a disc herniation completely still causes stress to the injured disc. Just like any injured tissue, herniated discs can generate pain or discomfort.
However, not all actions impact the injury in the same fashion, making it common to experience pain with certain movements only. Which movements will those be?
This is determined by the area involved, the severity of the injury, as well as the overall health of the other structures in the spine.
4. Worsened Pain at Night
There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to sleep through the night. When someone struggles with pain, mobility loss, weakness, numbness, or tingling throughout the day, surely exhaustion takes over and their herniated disc is no longer problematic, right? Not always.
Disc herniation’s may generate worsened pain at night. One of the theories as to why this occurs is known as The Gate Control Theory of Pain, which is based upon the premise that nerves can only carry a finite amount of information.
During the day, the brain processes all sorts of data, meaning it is distracted from the pain. At night, the pain may intensify when these distractions are eliminated.
Another theory claims pain may also be worsened at night because all day long body weight is pressing on the herniated disc, increasing its workload. With hours of repetition, this fatigues the injured disc, intensifying the pain during the night.
5. Location of Pain
Herniated discs are common, yet the location of their pain is highly varied. The region of pain may be the site of the herniation, such as the neck or lower back.
However, due to the potential of herniated discs to impact spinal nerves, the pain may occur at a distal site, typically an arm or leg. The nerves that exit the spine create a roadmap of sensation to the entire body.
These dermatomes are predictable patterns of pain location that may actually be helpful. Physicians are trained to utilize the information such as the location of pain to help analyze which disc is impacting a certain nerve.
Identification clinically is then matched up with what is visualized on radiographic image, specifically MRI or CT scans.
All of these herniated disc symptoms, or pieces of the disc herniation puzzle, help tailor proper treatment to the individual, thus maximizing recovery.