When spinal discs are damaged by injury, disease or the normal wear and tear associated with aging, they may bulge out of place (herniate) or break open (rupture). A herniated disc alone may not cause discomfort. Pain occurs when pressure is put on the nerve roots or spinal cord. Depending on the location of the herniated disc, symptoms will occur in the area of the body affected by the nerve.
Some symptoms may include:
- Tingling ("pins and needles" sensation)
Symptoms may vary greatly, depending on the position of the herniated disc. A herniated disc in the neck may cause symptoms in the shoulders, arms or chest. A herniated disc in the lower back may cause sciatica, with leg pain and other nerve-related symptoms. A herniated disc in the lower back may be felt in the buttock and down the back of the leg to the ankle or foot. There may be low back pain, but usually not as severe as leg pain. Other symptoms of a herniated disc may include severe deep muscle pain and muscle spasms. Low back pain that does not involve numbness, tingling and/or weakness, or pain in a leg is not usually due to disc herniation pressing on the nerve root. In a similar manner, neck pain that doesn’t cause symptoms in the arm and hand is not usually from disc herniation.
Weakness in both legs and the loss of bladder and/or bowel control are symptoms of a specific and severe type of nerve root compression called cauda equina syndrome. This is a serious problem that requires immediate medical help.
Causes and Risk Factors
Degeneration of the disc (disc disease), aging or injury to the spine are common causes of herniated discs. Disc disease may result from tiny tears or cracks in the outer capsule of the disc.
Disc disease may develop as part of the normal aging process. Herniated discs can affect people of all ages, but they are most common in people between 35 and 45 years old who perform heavy manual labor or drive motor vehicles for long periods of time.
Injury to the spine can occur from sudden heavy strain or increased pressure to the lower back. Repeated activities such as poor lifting habits, prolonged exposure to vibration or sports-related injuries may stress the lower back.