What Does Herniated Disc Back Pain Feel Like?

A herniated disc is the condition when one of the discs between vertebrae is affected. The disc is soft in the center, while the outer layer is rubbery and tougher on the outside.  When the center slips through the outer layer, the vertebrae lose the cushion between them leading to pain, and other symptoms. What does herniated disc back pain feel like? Where you feel the pain and associated symptoms depends on where the affected disc is located. Let’s get into more details in this article, starting with a quick review of the role of the spine and intervertebral discs. 

About vertebrae and the role of intervertebral discs 

There are 33 vertebrae, stacked up one on top of the other. There are 7 vertebrae in the neck area (cervical spine,  labeled C1 to C7). This part of the spine is very flexible and supports the head. 

The following  12 vertebrae in the upper/ mid-spine (thoracic spine, T1 to T12) are connected with the ribs and provide support for the upper body.

The  5 vertebrae in the low back (lumbar vertebrae L1 to L5) are the largest vertebrae and play a key role in supporting the body weight. 

The next 5 vertebrae called the sacral vertebrae are fused in adults. Their role is to connect the spine with the bones of the hips.  Right at the end of the spine, the coccygeal is made up of 4 small vertebrae, also known as the tailbone. Intervertebral discs are found in the first cervical, thoracic and lumbar spine, the last disc is located between the L5 and S1 parts of the spine.  

The discs act not only as a cushion, but also keep the space between the vertebrae so the nerves can come out. Discs allow movement of the spine as well and are weight-bearing structures, along with bones and joints. The low back pain is more prone to herniated discs, particularly between L4-L5 vertebrae). The neck is the second more likely affected by a slipped disc. 

What does herniated disc back pain feel like?

Generally speaking, a herniated disc will cause pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness.  The pain from a herniated disc usually starts on one side of the body and may progress over time. Tingling and numbness occur because the nearby nerves get irritated by the herniated disk. Weakness develops because the muscles served by the affected nerve become weaker. Spinal nerves are involved in the movement, gathering sensory information, and sending signals from the brain to the body.  

However, where these symptoms are located depends on the disc that is damaged. 

If the herniated disc is in the lower back, the pain is felt in the buttocks, thighs, calf and may even extend to a part of the foot. 

If the herniated disk is in the upper part of the spine and neck, the pain is felt mostly in the shoulder and arm. 

The pain tends to radiate to the leg or arm when a person sneezes, coughs, or changes the position (i.e. standing, bending, twisting). The pain is described as a sharp, shooting, or burning pain (due to nerve irritation). The pain may get worse at night.  If several nerves are irritated, a person may feel aches and pains and a cold sensation, or electric shock-like feeling usually on one side ( the affected side). 

Sometimes the toes or the fingers may feel numb. 

While pain, tingling, numbness, and weakness are mostly associated with herniated discs, there are other symptoms to consider and have an impact on many areas of life. 

Many individuals report sleeping problems due to the pain and fatigue the next day. Weight loss, increased stress and depression are more likely to develop in cases of chronic back pain. Pain limited movement, the ability to walk, sit or lie down in bed comfortably.  Pain interferes with day-to-day activities such as dressing/undressing, taking a shower, or doing household chores. Back pain, especially low back pain is a leading cause of disability and days off from work. 

Bladder and bowel dysfunction suggest complications of a herniated disc.

Is it possible for a herniated disc to not cause symptoms at all? Yes, some people don’t feel any pain because the herniated disc does not put pressure on any nerves and the herniation is minimal. 

When pain develops, the intensity will depend on how much the disc is pressing on the nerves. Little nerve irritation implies minimal nerve irritation.

The underlying cause of the herniated disc can cause additional symptoms. Risk factors for herniated disc include trauma, degenerative changes (osteoarthritis), poor posture, weight-bearing sports, heavy lifting, and excess weight. If osteoarthritis is associated with a herniated disk, the pain is associated with stiffness and achy joints. The symptoms tend to be worse in the morning, improve with movements, but may lead to chronic, long-term low back pain. Trauma will cause acute low back pain and the person will fully recover without any residual symptoms. 

Gaining more weight tends to aggravate the back pain over time while losing excess weight can improve the symptoms and prevent future episodes. 

In most cases, the symptoms resolve within a few weeks. More severe, persistent cases require more therapies, including medication and possibly surgery, too.