What it is
When people say they have a “slipped” or “ruptured” disk in their neck or lower back, what they are actually describing is a herniated disk-a common source of pain in the neck, lower back, arms, or legs.
Disks are soft, rubbery pads found between the hard bones (vertebrae) that make up the spinal column. The spinal canal is a hollow space in the middle of the spinal column that contains the spinal cord and other nerve roots. The disks between the vertebrae allow the back to flex or bend. Disks also act as shock absorbers.
Disks in the lumbar spine (low back) are composed of a thick outer ring of cartilage (annulus) and an inner gel-like substance (nucleus). In the cervical spine (neck), the disks are similar but smaller in size.
A disk herniates or ruptures when part of the center nucleus pushes through the outer edge of the disk and back toward the spinal canal. This puts pressure on the nerves. Spinal nerves are very sensitive to even slight amounts of pressure, which can result in pain, numbness, or weakness in one or both legs.
Low back pain affects four out of five people. Pain alone is not enough to recognize a herniated disk. See your doctor if back pain results from a fall or a blow to your back. The most common symptom of a herniated disk is sciatica—a sharp, often shooting pain that extends from the buttocks down the back of one leg. It is caused by pressure on the spinal nerve.
Other symptoms include:
- Weakness in one leg
- Tingling (a “pins-and-needles” sensation) or numbness in one leg or buttock
- Loss of bladder or bowel control (If you also have significant weakness in both legs, you could have a serious problem and should seek immediate attention.)
- A burning pain centered in the neck
As with pain in the lower back, neck pain is also common. When pressure is placed on a nerve in the neck, it causes pain in the muscles between your neck and shoulder (trapezius muscles). The pain may shoot down the arm. The pain may also cause headaches in the back of the head. Other symptoms include:
- Weakness in one arm
- Tingling (a “pins-and-needles” sensation) or numbness in one arm
- Loss of bladder or bowel control (If you also have significant weakness in both arms or legs, you could have a serious problem and should seek immediate attention.)
- Burning pain in the shoulders, neck, or arm