When Should You Visit a Doctor for Herniated Disc Pain?

Herniated disc symptoms you shouldn't ignore.

A herniated disc is a common spinal disorder, and it typically responds well to conservative treatment like gentle exercise or over-the-counter pain medication. But some ruptured disc symptoms warrant a trip to your doctor to prevent serious—and potentially permanent—nerve complications.
Spinal nerve compression viewed from above.A herniated disc in the neck or back is a common cause of pain and other neurological symptoms.

Don’t Ignore These Herniated Disc Symptoms

Herniated disc symptoms run a wide spectrum—sometimes, a ruptured disc causes no symptoms; other times, the pain is radiating and debilitating. Fortunately, most herniated discs don’t require spine surgery and respond well to non-surgical treatments.

However, some herniated symptoms are indicative of potentially serious complications that warrant urgent medical attention. If you experience any of the severe herniated disc symptoms below, contact your doctor immediately:

  • Loss of bowel and/or bladder control, loss of feeling in your lower extremities (legs and feet): These symptoms, which may be caused by a lumbar (low back) herniated disc, may be related to cauda equina syndrome. Cauda equina syndrome is a rare but serious spinal disorder requiring immediate medical attention.
  • Loss of balance and fine motor skills, and muscle weakness: These symptoms signal spinal nerve compression. In the most severe cases, the herniated disc can compress the spinal cord itself—this is known as myelopathy. This is most often caused by herniated discs in your cervical spine (neck), but thoracic (mid-back) and lumbar herniated discs may lead to myelopathy as well.

In addition to these symptoms, you should see your doctor if:

  • Your symptoms don’t respond—or worsen—with several weeks of conservative treatment (eg, ice and heat or physical therapy).
  • Your pain is interfering with your day-to-day life (eg, reduces your quality of sleep or causes you to miss work).

Why It’s Important to See Your Doctor if You Experience Herniated Disc Symptoms

A disc that herniates can compress or pinch a nerve in your spine. When a herniated disc presses on your spinal nerves or spinal cord, it can cause numbness, weakness, tingling, shooting pain, bowel and/or bladder problems—symptoms that can take a huge toll on your quality of life.

The sooner nerve compression is treated, the more likely you’ll enjoy a complete recovery. But if you wait too long to address your nerve-related pain, you risk having long-term or permanent nerve damage.

Moreover, a 2011 study suggested that waiting too long to seek medical treatment for your herniated disc may end up doing more harm than good. The study compared 2 groups of patients who had lumbar herniated discs. The patients who waited longer than 6 months to report their herniated disc symptoms to a doctor did not respond as well to treatment as those who waited less than 6 months to seek medical advice.1

The lesson patients can learn from this study is not to wait too long to visit your doctor if your herniated disc pain is severe. If you have low back or neck pain that persists, seeing a doctor sooner rather than later may improve the success of your treatment.

Seeing your doctor about your herniated disc symptoms will likely include getting an imaging scan (eg, a CT or MRI scan) to show exactly what’s causing your pain. Knowing the true cause is essential to helping your doctor develop a treatment plan that appropriately addresses these symptoms.

A Spine Specialist May Help Prevent Serious Herniated Disc Complications

In many cases, patience and time (and perhaps some medication) are enough to ease herniated disc pain, but some symptoms need medical attention. If you experience the severe bulging disc symptoms outlined here, contact your personal doctor or spine specialist immediately (your personal doctor may refer you to a spine specialist if you don’t have one). Your spine specialist will help determine the cause and severity of your herniated disc and craft a treatment plan that minimizes your pain and long-term complications.

Updated on: 09/18/18
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Cervical Herniated Disc or Ruptured Disc

A herniated disc is a common cause of neck pain that may radiate into other parts of your upper body, such as your shoulders and arms.
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