Pain in your neck or back can prevent you from doing your favorite activities. Some people have to give up hobbies like running or golf while other patients are in so much pain they can barely move their necks. When you meet with a doctor to talk about your pain, their goal is to diagnose the issue in order to effectively treat it. Unfortunately, some conditions have similar symptoms and can be hard to tell apart.
For example, pinched nerves and herniated discs can be found in the same locations and can feel the same. Both are pain conditions and can take several weeks – if not months – to heal. In some cases, a herniated disc can even cause a pinched nerve.
This guide can help you better understand the differences between a pinched nerve and a herniated disc so you learn their causes, symptoms, and treatment options. Together, you and your doctor can create a plan to reduce your pain levels so you live more comfortably.
Throughout your body, a complex series of nerves winds its way around your bones, muscles, and organs. Most of the time, these nerves are untouched and are able to send information to and from the brain. Occasionally, however, the surrounding tissue can press down on these nerves, causing pain and numbness. This is what is known as a pinched nerve.
There are several triggers that can cause a pinched nerve in your body. You might experience an injury that affects the nerves or they could form from overuse. If you frequently do the same motion (like strumming a guitar or swinging your elbow during tennis) you are at risk of pinching a nerve. Arthritis can also trigger pinched nerves because of the inflamed joints around the nerve area.
A pinched nerve can last for a few days and will usually heal on its own. However, in severe cases, the pain from a pinched nerve will last for several months. Pain levels can range from mild discomfort to throbbing pain that prevents you from comfortably navigating life. Patients also often report numbness and tingling.
If you have a pinched nerve in your back, you might experience pain at the nerve source. However, because your spine serves as an information superhighway throughout your body, this pain could radiate to other areas. It’s common for patients who have pinched nerves in their lower back to also experience numbness, tingling, and radiating pain down their legs and even into their feet.
Pain from a pinched nerve can be felt in any part of the back, ranging from the cervical (neck) region to the lumbar (lower back) area.
If you have a pinched nerve in your neck, it might be difficult to turn your head from side to side. The pain from this pinched nerve also might travel down your arms and into your hands. Once again, this is because the nerves are trying to carry information to and from your extremities.
If the discomfort from a pinched nerve isn’t receding, seek medical treatment. Your doctor will run a series of tests to confirm that you are experiencing a pinched nerve – as opposed to other spinal problems.
There are a few common tests associated with pinched nerves. Your doctor might request an x-ray to look for fractures or a computed tomography (CT) scan which provides a 3D image of your affected area. In some cases, your doctor might request a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) exam which can look at your soft tissue to see if it is affecting your nerves.
Once your doctor can confirm the pinched nerve diagnosis, they can move forward with a treatment plan.
In many cases, pinched nerves can heal on their own. However, if your pain persists or is so severe that you cannot enjoy life, your doctor will recommend a series of treatments. These include:
The recovery process could take a few weeks or a few months. Surgery is often considered a last resort for treating pinched nerves. You must have a very severe case for this to be the best possible option to heal.
The activities you need to avoid will depend on the location of your pinched nerve. Your doctor will ask about your lifestyle and make recommendations for what you can and cannot do. The most important thing to do is rest so your body can heal and the injury isn’t worsened.
Each vertebra in your spine is protected by cushioned discs. They work as shock absorbers and prevent your bones from grinding against each other. Occasionally, these discs break or get pushed out of place. This is known as a herniated disc (also called a slipped disc or ruptured disc). Herniated discs are common in the lower back and neck.
When these discs are out of place, they often hit the nerve canal in your spine. They are often confused with pinched nerves because the location of the pain and symptoms are similar.
There are four levels of disc herniation which can cause varying levels of pain in your body. Here is what you need to know.
By catching problems with your spinal discs early on, doctors can work to address the symptoms of compression or bulging discs before they move on to the more severe levels.
Like a pinched nerve, you will feel pain at the site of the herniation but also in the extremities where the nerve energy is traveling. For example, if you have a herniated disc in your lower back, you could feel a throbbing in your legs or a tingling in your feet.
Pain from a herniated disc can be sharp or dull. You might develop chronic pain from the herniation (which means the pain is near constant) or you could experience sharp pangs when the disc is pushed into your nerves. Pain levels vary from patient to patient. Some people report mild levels of discomfort while others are in so much pain they can barely stand to move.
Talk to your doctor if you suspect you might have a herniated disc. They will ask about your pain and conduct a physical exam to understand the source of your discomfort. Then, just like diagnosing a pinched nerve, your doctor might ask you to complete X-ray, CT, and MRI exams.
In some cases, it is possible to check for a herniated disc without an MRI. However, this is often one of the best imaging tools to look at your soft tissue. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about MRI exams.
The initial treatment of a herniated disc is often similar to the treatment of a pinched nerve. Your doctor will give you tips to treat this condition at home through pain relievers, physical therapy, hot and cold therapy, and other potential options.
However, the main difference between the treatments for these two conditions is that surgery is more common to treat herniation. While your doctor will do their best to help you heal with non-invasive methods, they might recommend disc replacement to reduce your pain levels. Your doctor will remove the damaged disc and replace it with an artificial model that will stay in place. This option is usually only recommended for patients with chronically debilitating and painful conditions.
The recovery process for this condition will vary depending on the patient and the severity of the herniation. Some patients might be able to recover at home with a brief period of rest. Other patients who need surgery may need to take a leave of absence from work. It usually takes around six weeks to recover from surgery and up to six months to fully heal from the operation.
As a patient, you likely can’t self-diagnose a herniated disc or pinched nerve. Even if you have experienced one of these conditions before, similar symptoms might mislead you into thinking you have one issue when you really have another. This is why you need to meet with a spine professional. They can run tests to look at your nerves to see what is causing the pain.
The main difference between a pinched nerve and a herniated disc is when the pain happens. Track when you experience surges of pain, along with what you were doing when the pain occurred. Herniated discs are usually triggered by specific movements or actions, which can either lead to sharp pains or a throbbing pain that lasts for several hours. If you notice a pattern in what causes the pain, you might have a herniated disc. If the pain occurs at random or there is no known trigger, you could have a pinched nerve.
Keep in mind that this isn’t a guaranteed way to diagnose one condition over another. However, documenting your pain can make you more informed about it and can help your doctor reach a diagnosis.
Herniated discs are more common in your lower back. If you experience chronic back pain or your pain is worsening rather than improving (as a pinched nerve should) then you might have a disc herniation.
Seek treatment for back pain if it isn’t going away or becoming worse. If you have a disc herniation, it is better to stop the process at the first or second levels. Discs at these levels are more likely to respond to non-surgical treatments.
While disc herniation in the neck isn’t impossible, it is less common than those in the back. If you experience neck pain, it might be more likely that you have a pinched nerve. Once again, only a doctor can fully diagnose your condition and recommend appropriate treatments.
These aren’t the only two conditions that can cause neck and back pain. Your doctor might diagnose another condition that has similar symptoms as these two.
Both pinched nerves and herniated discs can be incredibly painful and cause pain to radiate through your arms and legs. Both conditions affect your nervous system – even though a herniated disc starts with your spine. Even if you already live a healthy lifestyle, you can develop pain that gets worse because of these conditions.
There is good news: you don’t have to live with pain. If you experience pain, numbness, or tingling in your neck or back, seek help from a specialist. Contact Dr. Todd H. Lanman, leading spinal neurosurgeon and founder of the Advanced Disc Replacement Spinal Restoration Center, and set up a consultation. The sooner you seek treatment, the sooner you can prevent your pain from worsening as you take steps to heal.
Request a consultation today and work with skilled medical professionals who provide personalized advice that is specific to your needs.
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