Your spine consists of vertebrae, which are the bones of the spine that provide a movable support structure for your back. In between each vertebra sits the small spongy discs, which acts as shock absorbers for the spine and keeps the spine flexible.
As we age, the spinal discs gradually loose their elasticity and becomes more rigid and more susceptible to injury. The disc is shaped like a donut, with a harder outer fibrous ring (annulus) and a softer center called the nucleus. When a disc is damaged, its outer ring may bulge or even rupture, allowing the soft nucleus to bulge out beyond the damaged ring. This is called a herniated disc. It may occur suddenly in an event such as a fall or heavy lifting, or may occur slowly with repetitive straining of the spine.
You can have a herniated disc in any part of your spine, but most common in the lower spine. Some happen in the neck (cervical spine) and, more rarely, in the upper back (thoracic spine).
When a herniated disc bulges out from its outer ring, it presses on the spinal nerve roots and can cause pain, numbness, and weakness in the area of the body where the nerve travels (typically down the leg or arm).
The location of the pain depends on which disc is involved. The severity of pain depends on how much the bulging disc is pressing against the nerve roots. If a disc herniation occurs in the lower back, you will feel the symptoms such as muscle weakness, pain, numbness and tingling in your lower buttocks, legs, and feet. If it occurs in the cervical section of your spine, you will feel it in your neck, shoulders, down the arms or even in the fingers. The symptoms are mostly experienced on one side of your body, but can happen bilaterally.
In rare cases, symptoms include bowel or bladder problems, balance difficulties or numbness in the groin. It may be a sign of cauda equina syndrome which may require urgent diagnosis and treatment, as the condition can become permanent if not properly addressed.
The pain from a herniated disc usually worsen with activities that apply more pressure to the affected nerve(s) or surrounding tissue, such as sitting, driving, bending forward, coughing and sneezing. Rest only provides temporary relief to the symptoms.