Find a physician

When to Seek Emergency Care for a Herniated Disc


For many people with a herniated disc (sometimes referred to as a “ruptured” or “bulging” disc), spinal disc problems of this nature are not medically urgent. In fact, it is common for patients to respond well to medication, physical therapy, and other nonsurgical remedies. Still, a herniated disc does have the potential to be considered a medical emergency. This article will explain situations when this could happen and why.

Cauda Equina Syndrome

At the end of the spinal cord, there is a bundle of sensitive nerve roots referred to as the cauda equina. If a herniated disc in the lower portion of the spine compresses these nerves, it could contribute to:

• Urinary incontinence
• Difficulty urinating when you have a full bladder
• Issues with bowel movements

If you are noticing any of these signs of cauda equina syndrome related to a herniated disc, seek medical attention immediately. Surgery is often recommended to relieve the nerve pressure being caused in this area by protruding disc material.

Saddle Anesthesia

Herniated discs sometimes contribute to a steady loss of sensation within the "saddle" area. This refers to the upper thighs, the backs of the legs, and the buttocks—essentially any body parts that would make contact with a saddle. If the loss of sensation in this area is fairly consistent or affecting your ability to sit, sleep, or go about your daily routine, it is typically considered an emergency.

Extremely Severe Symptoms

Some people have herniated discs and never know it, while others experience symptoms that are extremely severe right away. Even when this is the case, it is not unusual for the discomfort to gradually subside or be more intermittent—meaning the symptoms come and go depending on what you are doing. For some individuals, there is no relief or break from the discomfort. If your disc-related symptoms are debilitating and consistent, seek medical assistance as soon as possible.

Worsening Symptoms

A herniated disc can also be considered an emergency if your symptoms are getting increasingly worse or serious, even if they were fairly mild at first. This is more likely to be the case if the herniated spinal disc is contributing to any of the following nerve-based symptoms:

• Muscle weakness that is affecting your mobility
• Numbness and tingling sensations
• Pain that extends to your thighs, legs, or feet
• Shooting pain that extends along the nerve's pathway

Unless your symptoms are immediately severe or potentially life-threatening, you will likely be advised to try nonsurgical treatments for several months. If your symptoms are worse or still essentially the same after conservative treatment, talk to your doctor. Surgery, such as a discectomy or a less invasive microdiscectomy, may be discussed and potentially recommended.

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis

Regardless of the nature of your herniated disc symptoms, it is best to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as your discomfort begins to affect your daily life. If your disc-related issues are severe or worrisome, you should take this step immediately. In either case, getting an accurate diagnosis increases your odds of experiencing welcome relief with appropriate treatments.

If you have a herniated disc that is not responding to conservative treatment, a discectomy may be the best option. Although this is generally one of the most successful back surgery procedures, patients with a large hole in the outer ring of the disc have a significantly higher risk of reherniation following surgery. Often, the surgeon will not know the size of the hole until he or she begins surgery, and having a large hole in the outer ring of the disc more than doubles the risk of needing another operation. A new treatment, Barricaid, is a bone-anchored device that closes this hole, and 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in a 2-year study timeframe. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. 

If you have any questions about the Barricaid treatment, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.

 For full benefit/risk information, please visit: