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Herniated Disc Blog

The bones that form the spine (also referred to as vertebrae) are cushioned by discs.  These discs act as shock absorbers for the spine. A herniated disc occurs when a fragment of the disc nucleus (a gel like substance that cushions the bone) is pushed out of the outer layer of the disc and into the spinal canal through a tear or rupture. This displacement causes the disc to press on spinal nerves which can cause intense pain.  

Surprisingly, the most common symptoms of a herniated disc tend to be pain in the arm or leg. If the herniated disc is in the lower back, pain will typically be most intense in the buttocks, thigh, and calf. Shoulder and arm pain are typically felt when the herniated disc is in the neck.  

In addition to feeling pain in the arm or leg, there are other signs of a herniated disc that are often overlooked:

  1. A cold sensation in one side of your body

    Sometimes when nerves are irritated one might feel aching pain or even a cold sensation along one side of the body from the trunk to the foot.

  2. Your hands are numb

    Pain isn’t the only symptom of a herniated disc. When the nerves in your spinal column are affected, they send messages to the brain that can result in numbness. Hand numbness is a sign that your cervical spine (located in your neck) is the source of the disc rupture.  

  3. Leg weakness

    Severe compression of the spinal cord can affect your legs, causing weakness or imbalance.

  4. Foot Pain

    Herniated discs in the lower back can press on the sciatic nerve. This pain shoots through the leg all the way down to the foot where you may feel pain or even lose feeling in your toes.  

  5. Pain when laughing, coughing or sneezing

    We’ve all laughed so hard it hurts but this may be something more serious to watch out for if you have a herniated disc. When one laughs, coughs, or sneezes, pressure is put on the abdomen. This pressure can reverberate to your back. If you have a herniated disc that pressure can cause pain.  

Can herniated discs be misdiagnosed as other types of injuries?

The answer is yes.  In fact, a misdiagnosed herniated disc is one of the most common reasons for patients to endure chronic neck or back pain. Herniated discs are often misdiagnosed as piriformis syndrome, a muscular disorder in the buttocks, as well as mild sciatica, degenerative disc disease, and osteoarthritis.

How long does it take a herniated disc injury to cause pain? 

In some cases, people with herniated discs feel zero pain because the disc doesn’t press on any nerves. But for those that do feel pain, the timing and pain level will vary depending on how much the disc is pressing on the nerve. Symptoms normally reduce or resolve after a number of weeks but for more serious, persistent cases, surgery may be required.  

How is a herniated disc properly diagnosed?

If any of the types of pain or numbness described above are felt, the best thing to do is to see a doctor. Typically, they will do a physical exam to find the source of the pain.  They may want to do further testing to rule out any other issues. The most common imaging for this condition is MRI. MRI, magnetic resonance imaging, produces 3-D images of body structures using powerful magnets and computer technology. MRI will show the spinal cord, nerve roots, and surrounding areas and allow the doctor to see any abnormalities in the spine.

At CORE Orthopedics we use an Open MRI machine. The MRI magnet is considered “open” because of the size of the opening. The primary benefit is patient comfort during the procedure. By using the revolutionary technology of the MAGNETOM Espree we are able to give our patients the comfort and space of an open MRI with imaging power of a traditional closed unit.

What is the proper treatment for a herniated disc?

Initial treatment is usually nonsurgical. Doctors may advise patients to avoid strenuous activities for a few weeks. This helps to decrease inflammation in the spinal nerve.  Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication is frequently prescribed if the pain is only mild to moderate. Physical therapy such as pelvic traction, gentle massage, ice therapy, heat therapy, and stretching exercises are often recommended as well. If conservative treatments do not reduce or end the herniated disc pain, doctors may recommend surgery. A patient’s age and overall health should be taken into consideration to determine the proper procedure.If you think you have a herniated disc or similar injury contact CORE Orthopedics and Sports Medicine at (847) 690-1776.

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