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Is It a Herniated Disc?

Last Updated: July 6th, 2020 at 09:57 pm
Read Time: 6 Minutes

Many terms are used to describe spinal disc damage. Sometimes these terms are interchangeable, and sometimes they are not. For instance, disc pain due to any cause is often referred to as a herniated disc, which can lead to back pain, lower back pain that radiates into the legs, and other symptoms. But, is that accurate?

Since the terms used to talk about spinal disc injury are sometimes interchangeable, it can be frustrating to hear one diagnosis being described using different terms. At ChiroCare of Florida, we believe in educating our patients about their back pain and their spine’s health. That’s why we take the time to explain the terminology and possible variations used to describe your back pain.

So, let’s find out once and for all if your back pain is a herniated disc, a bulging disc, a pinched nerve, or what.

Understanding Spinal Disc Pain

First of all, there are only two possible ways a spinal disc can cause pain. Essentially, spinal discs are the cushioning component in between each vertebrae that absorb the shock our spine would otherwise receive from walking, running, and everyday pressure.

These shock-absorbing spinal discs can cause pain in two ways:

Pinching a Nerve. By itself, a herniated disc can’t cause pain. However, if the abnormal shape of the disc or the inner material leaking out of the disc irritates a nearby nerve, it can cause radicular pain, which is described as shooting pain that travels to other areas of the body.

Disc Pain. When there’s a damaged disc, the source of the pain comes from the disc itself. In this case, the pain experienced is localized with occasional severe pain sensations around the affected disc.

Conditions that Mimic a Herniated Disc

In many occasions, the pain experienced due to a herniated disc is mistaken or confused by other conditions. Those affected by conditions that mimic a herniated disc may neglect seeking proper help by assuming they’re just suffering from a herniated disc.

A Hernia

A hernia often leads to dull pain that radiates into the pelvis, abdomen, or groin area, causing discomfort, tenderness, and abdominal distension (extreme bloating). On occasion, a herniated disc can cause abdominal discomfort, depending on the location. However, a hernia is pain originating from an organ or fatty tissue, not from the spine.


Sciatica refers to an inflamed or irritated sciatic nerve. Sciatica causes lower back pain that radiates into the legs, much like a herniated disc. But, sciatica is often the result of a herniated disc, not the other way around. In the case of sciatica vs. herniated discs, one refers to nerve pain and the other one to disc pain; they originate in different areas and as a result are treated differently.

Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD)

Those who suffer from degenerative disc disease are more likely to suffer a herniated disc. However, that doesn’t mean one is strictly related to the other. Degenerative disc disease refers to the degeneration of the intervertebral discs, versus a herniated disc, which refers to a tear or cracks in the outer layer of the disc, due to degeneration, sudden injury, or a fracture.

Spinal Stenosis

Another condition that mimics most of the symptoms associated with a herniated disc is spinal stenosis, which is the narrowing of the spinal canal. If you create a chart to lay out the differences between spinal stenosis vs. herniated discs, the list can go on and on. If any, spinal stenosis could be considered the culprit of herniated discs.

Pinched Nerves

The pain experienced with a herniated disc may be similar to the one experienced with a pinched nerve. Since herniated discs often lead to pinched nerves, this connection can be expected. However, pinched nerves can also be the result of spinal misalignments, spinal stenosis, and other spinal conditions.

Signs of a Herniated Disc

So, if you’re experiencing some sort of disc pain, how can you tell you’re experiencing symptoms of a herniated disc? The first sign that points to a herniated disc is location. Herniated discs can occur at any point in the spine, yet they’re most common in the lumbar spine and the neck.

Herniated disc pain usually worsens when you’re being active, such as walking, running, or even if you’re just standing. On that note, herniated disc pain gets better when you’re resting and relaxed. But, those who have a herniated disc can experience sharp pain just by coughing or sneezing.

Age plays a huge factor in herniated discs. As we get older, our spinal discs are more prone to wear and tear, which makes them more prone to tears and cracks as they begin to lose their flexibility and cushioning properties, becoming stiffer and more delicate.

Herniated Disc Stages

Herniated discs don’t just happen overnight. They might start as a bulging disc and move their way up to a full herniation. Each herniated disc stage has different symptoms, and the stage also determines the type of treatment you’ll need.

Bulging Disc

A bulging disc occurs when the inner gel-like material of a spinal disc pushes through a tear in the outer layer. A bulged disc may cause no symptoms. Only when the inner gel-like substance touches a nearby nerve can it lead to irritation or nerve compression, which results in pain.

Compressed Disc

A compressed disc happens when the walls of the disc weaken and start to lose their structural integrity. When this occurs, the spinal disc protrudes from its natural form, which leads to nerve compression, resulting in moderate to severe pain.

Fractured Disc

A disc fracture happens when an individual bone of the spine becomes compressed. This results in symptoms such as back pain, abdominal pain, and in some cases, can even lead to incontinence. One could say a fractured disc is sort of a ruptured disc, which occurs when the disc cartilage breaks, allowing the inner gel-like material to protrude and cause irritation.

Prolapsed Disc

Another term used to describe a herniated disc.

How to Tell: Is It a Herniated Disc?

So, is it a herniated disc? The symptoms are all too similar to tell whether your back pain is due to a herniated disc, and the unexpected scenarios that can cause a herniated disc can make matters all the more mystifying. At ChiroCare of Florida, we count on x-ray imaging to tell if there’s an abnormality in the spine. An MRI or CT scan can also help get a more detailed image of the spine and assess if there’s an injured spinal disc.

Before you even try to self-diagnose yourself and start self-medicating your back pain, contact a ChiroCare office today and speak with a qualified doctor that can look at your symptoms, your spine’s health, and other signs to really tell if your back pain is from a herniated disc, and develop the proper treatment plan for you.

About the Author:
Dr. Steven Schwartz
Raised in Coral Springs, Florida, Dr. Steven Schwartz is a major advocate for the South Florida community. CEO of ChiroCare of Florida, Dr. Schwartz has grown the group from one facility to 11. Whether he’s treating patients or volunteering for community service, Dr. Schwartz’s long-term goal is to ensure that each and every patient can experience the ChiroCare of Florida difference.
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