Pinched nerve vs. herniated disc: How to tell the difference

If you’re trying to figure out the cause of your spinal pain, you might frequently see the terms “pinched nerve” or “herniated disc” come up. You may be wondering what these terms mean and what the difference is between the two.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between the symptoms of a pinched nerve and a herniated disc. You might even have both at the same time. A medical professional can help diagnose your symptoms and set you up with different treatment options, like physical therapy. To better understand the difference between these two medical terms and what treatment options are available, continue reading below.

The difference between a pinched nerve and a herniated disc

While the two conditions can be related, there are some key differences in the features and potential causes of each:

  • Pinched nerve — A pinched nerve occurs when surrounding tissue, such as muscles, bone or cartilage, places too much pressure on a spinal nerve. Pinched nerves can occur anywhere along the spine. Temporary cases may be caused by injury or poor posture. Any injury or condition that causes increased compression on or around the spine can also result in a pinched nerve. This includes a herniated spinal disc or bone spurs. A pinched nerve might also be caused by chronic conditions, like arthritis.
  • Herniated disc Each spinal disc has a soft, jellylike center that is encased in a rubbery outside ring. These discs provide cushioning and support the individual bones in your spine, absorbing shocks from daily activities such as walking. A herniated, or slipped, disc is when the center of your spinal disc pushes or “slips” out of its tougher exterior. A slipped disc can happen in any part of your spine but is most common in the lower back. Herniated discs are commonly caused by twisting or turning to lift a large, heavy object. As such, having a physically demanding job that requires frequent lifting can place you at a higher risk of a slipped disc. Individuals between the ages of 30 and 50 and overweight individuals are also at a higher risk of a herniated disc.

Common symptoms of a pinched nerve vs. a herniated disc

A pinched nerve and a herniated disc can have very similar symptoms. When and where you are experiencing pain or discomfort can help you tell the difference:

  • Pinched nerve — If you have a pinched nerve, you may experience a sharp or burning pain in the affected area. This pain may radiate outward and cause tingling or numbness in your other limbs. In the case of a pinched nerve in your neck, you may also experience a loss of feeling in your shoulder, arm, hand or finger. A pinched nerve in your upper back can cause pain in your chest or torso, while a pinched nerve in your lower back can cause hip pain or sciatica.
  • Herniated disc Similar to a pinched nerve, you may also experience radiating pain, numbness or tingling from a herniated disc. Herniated discs are more common in your lower back. If you have a slipped disc in your lower back, you may feel pain in your buttocks, thigh, calf or foot. A herniated disc in your neck may cause you to feel a shooting pain in your shoulder or arm. The key difference between the pain caused by a pinched nerve and a herniated disc is when the pain happens. In the case of a herniated disc, pain and discomfort are usually triggered by certain movements, such as sitting, standing, or walking short distances. It is also important to note that some people with a herniated disc may experience no symptoms at all.

Treatment options for a pinched nerve vs. a herniated disc

Once you have received a diagnosis for a pinched nerve or herniated disc, there are a variety of at-home and clinical treatment options available:

  • Pinched nerve — For at-home treatment of a pinched nerve, it is recommended to rest the affected area. Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen can also provide symptom relief while you recover. Depending on the location of your pinched nerve, a doctor may recommend you wear a splint, collar or brace to help reduce movement in the area of injury, such as with carpal tunnel syndrome. If symptoms last longer than a few days, are severe, or keep coming back, you should seek advice from a doctor or physical therapist. A physical therapist may use techniques such as manual therapy or therapeutic exercise as part of your treatment plan. Studies have shown that these two techniques, when used together, can reduce pinched nerve pain and discomfort.
  • Herniated disc Over-the-counter pain relievers and avoiding heavy lifting or painful positions can help reduce your pain from a herniated disc. You may be tempted to avoid all physical activity while experiencing slipped disc pain. However, you should try to remain active through stretching or low-impact activities. This can help prevent further muscle weakness and joint stiffness. A physical therapist can help you design an exercise program that can strengthen the affected area while also reducing your pain. Your treatment plan might also include other physical therapy techniques. Lumbar stabilization has been shown to reduce pain and restore function in patients with a herniated disc. Spinal manipulation is another physical therapy technique that has proven effective in easing herniated disc pain.

Physical therapists at Continuum Wellness can help identify the cause of your symptoms and create an appropriate treatment plan

A pinched nerve or herniated disc can be a major disruption to your everyday life and can cause long-term issues if left untreated. Our physical therapists at Continuum Wellness are prepared to create a treatment plan to help you get your life back on track. Our specialists can examine you to determine which condition is causing your symptoms. Then, they can build a treatment program to fit your condition and specific needs.

Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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