Living with chronic neck or back pain can mean not being able to enjoy the people and activities you love. Getting back to a full and active life requires treatment that is right for your condition and personal situation, but getting a clear diagnosis of the source of symptoms can be difficult.
If you’ve looked at an MRI or X-ray report, or had a conversation with your doctor, you might have heard terms like herniated disc and pinched nerve in relation to your symptoms. Many patients may think of these as separate conditions requiring separate treatment methods, or wonder if one is more serious than the other. However, these are two closely-related conditions; treatment does not come down to a question of a pinched nerve versus herniated disc.
Pinched nerve versus herniated disc — how to tell the difference
A pinched, or compressed, spinal nerve happens when part of the spine becomes displaced and puts pressure on the spinal cord or any of the exiting nerve roots of the spine. This can be related to a number of conditions and underlying factors, but the single biggest cause is age-related wear and tear. The spine has many moving parts, including facet joints and discs, which deteriorate over the years.
The spinal discs allow the spine to bend and twist smoothly, but are especially prone to degeneration. Consisting of a tough fibrous outer layer and a gel-like interior, these discs can wear out and lose their shape. A herniated disc can occur if inner disc material pushes out through a tear in the disc’s outer wall and into the spinal column.
A herniated disc is generally not painful by itself, although local discomfort can occur if the herniated disc material irritates the disc lining. However, if any part of the disc pinches a nerve, symptoms like the following can occur:
- Shooting pain
- Muscle weakness
- Limited motor functions
While it is possible to have pain from a herniated disc that isn’t from a pinched nerve, nerve compression is generally going to be the source of most, if not all, symptoms.
Treating nerve compression from a herniated disc
If you have been diagnosed with a herniated disc after experiencing painful nerve compression symptoms, the first step in treatment is usually a round of conservative options to provide relief. Methods can include rest, over-the-counter medication, physical therapy exercises and hot or cold compression.
Nerve decompression surgery to treat a pinched nerve is usually seen as a last-resort treatment when nonsurgical methods have been exhausted. This is due to the highly invasive nature of most procedures, which involve large incisions that disrupt supporting muscles, often requiring multiple nights of hospitalization followed by a long rehabilitation period.
Those considering surgery should consider the full range of surgical options, including minimally invasive spine surgery. These procedures can offer patients an easier recovery period because they use a smaller incision that utilizes a muscle-sparing approach in the neck or back. Ask your doctor or specialist if minimally invasive spine surgery may be able to help you.