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How Do You Know You Have a Herniated Disc?

Your spine is a complicated area with many delicate moving parts. It’s an ingenious design that enables you to bend, twist, and stand upright, all while housing countless nerve roots that supply the rest of your body with movement and sensation. The problem is, it’s a really crowded space, and if anything goes wrong, it throws the whole system out of whack.

Dr. Patrick McNulty is a master of all things spinal. As an award-winning, double board-certified orthopedic surgeon and spine specialist, he’s a leader in his field. Patients come from throughout the state of Nevada to see him in Las Vegas at McNulty Spine when they want the best care available. 

One of the most common conditions we see is a herniated disc. Although the best way to know for sure if you have this problem is to come in for a thorough examination by Dr. McNulty, there are some telltale symptoms that point to the probability that you’ve herniated a disc.

Understanding intervertebral discs

Your spine is essentially a tall stack of vertebrae (bones) joined together with cartilage, muscles, ligaments, and tendons. To keep each set of vertebrae from rubbing against the next, you have  intervertebral or spinal discs that act as cushions.

The outside of the disc is a firm rubbery layer called the annulus, and inside is a squishy jelly center called the nucleus. These little shock absorbers protect your bones as you jump, twist, flip, bend, flex, or just walk or sit. 

What is a herniated disc?

The movements you’ve made over the course of your lifetime take their toll, and the annulus wears thin. If it tears, the inner nucleus pushes out and bulges beyond the normal circumference of the disc. This bulging disc can easily touch, press on, or irritate a nearby nerve, which naturally results in pain. 

But wear and tear isn’t the only culprit. Improper lifting techniques, where you use your back instead of your leg muscles to hoist something heavy, can rupture a disc, as can a traumatic event like a car crash or a fall.

Signs of a herniated disc

It’s possible to have a herniated disc without knowing about it, because it may not be bothering any nerves in the area. But that's fairly rare. Typically, you’ll notice any of the following classical physical symptoms of a herniated disc:


Pain is the most obvious sign of a herniated disc, but the location may surprise you. When a disc ruptures and bulges, it compresses a nerve that feeds another body part, so you can experience symptoms anywhere along the path of that nerve.

If you have a herniated disc in your lower back, it may press on your sciatic nerve, which goes through your buttocks and all the way down each leg. If your disc problem is in your neck region, you could have pain in your arms or hands.

Tingling or numbness

Another classic sign of a herniated disc is tingling or numbness similar to the pins-and-needles sensation when your limb falls “asleep.” Again, you may feel this anywhere along the nerve route.


If left untreated, the constant nerve irritation can lead to weakening of the muscles in the area. If the affected nerve is in your arm, you may lose grip strength; if it’s in your leg, you may stumble when you walk.

Help for herniated discs

To verify that you actually have a herniated disc and not some other condition with similar symptoms, Dr. McNulty runs a few diagnostic tests, which may include X-rays, an MRI, and/or nerve tests. If he confirms the herniated disc, he develops a treatment plan based on the severity of your condition, the length of time you’ve been suffering, your age, weight, and other health factors.

In many cases, herniated discs heal on their own over time, but you may need some help managing the symptoms while it does. Dr. McNulty recommends that you start with over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen to relieve the discomfort. Next-level care may include a corticosteroid injection to deliver strong anti-inflammatory medication directly to the aggravated nerve.

If surgery is necessary, you’re in the best hands with Dr. McNulty, who uses a minimally invasive technique. This means you have only tiny incisions, less scarring, less risk of infection, and quicker recovery and healing times.

If you suspect you’ve herniated a disc, stop wondering and come in for an expert evaluation and treatment by one of the country’s best orthopedic surgeons. Contact us by phone or online to schedule a consultation. 

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