What Are Herniated Disc Symptoms?

Illustration of a spinal disc herniation between L4/L5 (4th and 5th lumbar vertebrae) and L5/S1 (5th lumbar and 1st sacrum)
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Question: What Are Herniated Disc Symptoms?


Herniated disc symptoms may vary according to where the injury is. But in general, you’ll probably have one or more radicular symptoms. These may include pins and needles, pain, weakness, numbness or an electrical shock feeling down your leg or arm (leg for a herniated disc in your low back, and arm for a herniated disc in your neck).

You’ll get radicular symptoms down a leg or arm because spinal nerve roots branch off into nerves that go all over the body.

Each nerve root is assigned, so to speak, a particular area to which it sends nerves. The areas are called dermatomes.

Sometimes a herniated disc may cause pain, disturbance or numbness in your bowel or bladder, or cause your legs to get progressively weaker. This is called cauda equina syndrome and is a medical emergency. If you get cauda equina symptoms, call your doctor or go to the emergency room immediately.

Herniated Disc Symptoms According to Spinal Area

Along with the radicular symptoms common to all areas of the spine, each area (neck, low back, thoracic) may have its own particular symptoms.

Low Back

If your low back is the affected area, you may also have other back pain and/or pain in your buttocks, back thigh, sacroiliac area or groin. The back pain from a lumbar herniated disc may get worse when you sit, and may improve when you stand or lie down. It will likely get worse if you exert yourself, especially if you twist or bend.
It will also likely get worse when you cough, sneeze or strain.


You’ll likely have neck and shoulder pain, in addition to the radicular symptoms. The pain down your arm may seem like a heart attack or something similar. You may experience headache, dizziness or visual disturbance. If your spinal cord is affected, which is rare, the radicular symptoms may be more spread out.

Mid and Upper Back

If the herniation is located in the mid or upper back, you may have pain in that area (called the thoracic area), or in your low back, leg or abdominal region. If your spinal cord is affected, you may get twitching or experience spasticity in the muscles around your mid section and back.


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Michele C. Battié, PhD., et. al. The Twin Spine Study: Contributios to a changing view of disc degeneration. Spine Journal. Volume 9, Issue 1, Pages 47-59 (January 2009) Accessed: Aug 2010 http://www.thespinejournalonline.com/article/S1529-9430%2808%2901440-X/abstract

Vaccaro, A. Spine: Core Knowledge in Orthopaedics. Elsevier Mosby. Philadelphia. 2005.

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