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How to Tell the Difference between Pinched Nerves and Herniated Discs


6.26 - How Do You Tell the Difference between a Pinched Nerve & a Herniated Disc-min
Experiencing back or neck pain can be concerning, especially when it comes with symptoms like tingling, numbness, or weakness. Two common culprits behind these symptoms are pinched nerves and herniated discs. While they may present similarly, understanding the differences between them is crucial for effective treatment and relief. In this article you will learn the differences between these two conditions, including symptoms, causes, and treatments.

Pinched Nerves Explained

A pinched nerve occurs when too much pressure is applied to a nerve by surrounding tissues, such as bones, cartilage, muscles, or tendons. This pressure can disrupt the nerve’s function, causing pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness. Common causes include repetitive motions, holding the body in one position for long periods, arthritis, and injury.

Symptoms of a pinched nerve include:

  • Pain – Sharp, aching, or burning pain radiating along the nerve path
  • Tingling or numbness – A pins-and-needles sensation or a loss of sensation in the affected area
  • Weakness – Muscle weakness in the affected area, which can impact mobility or grip strength
  • Worsening symptoms – Symptoms that worsen with certain movements or postures

What Is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc, also known as a slipped disc or ruptured disc, occurs when the soft inner material of an intervertebral disc leaks out through a tear in the tougher outer layer. This can irritate nearby nerves, leading to pain and other symptoms. Herniated discs are often caused by age-related wear and tear (disc degeneration), but they can also result from lifting heavy objects improperly, sudden pressure on the spine, or trauma.

Symptoms of a herniated disc include:

  • Pain – Intense pain in the back or neck, which may radiate to the arms or legs
  • Sciatica – If the herniated disc is in the lower back, it can press on the sciatic nerve, causing pain, tingling, and numbness down the leg
  • Nerve pain – Similar to a pinched nerve, the pain can be sharp or burning
  • Loss of mobility – Reduced range of motion in the spine due to pain and stiffness

Key Differences between Pinched Nerves and Herniated Discs

Location and cause

While a pinched nerve can occur anywhere in the body, it is often found in the neck, shoulders, and lower back. A herniated disc specifically affects the spine and is a structural issue with the disc itself, potentially leading to nerve impingement.

Nature of symptoms

Both conditions can cause similar symptoms like pain, tingling, and numbness. However, the nature and location of the pain can differentiate them:

  • Pinched nerve – Symptoms may be localized or radiate along the nerve path, and they can be influenced by body posture and movements.
  • Herniated disc – Symptoms are usually more intense and specific to the area served by the affected disc. Sciatica, characterized by pain radiating down the leg, is a hallmark of a herniated disc in the lower back.


Accurate diagnosis often requires medical imaging and a physical exam. A healthcare provider might use:

  • MRI or CT scan – To visualize soft tissues, including discs and nerves, and confirm the presence of a herniated disc
  • X-rays – To rule out other conditions like fractures
  • Electromyography (EMG) – To assess nerve function and identify the exact nerve involved in a pinched nerve

Treatment Options

Treating a pinched nerve

  • Rest and immobilization – Reducing movement in the affected area to alleviate pressure
  • Physical therapy – Exercises to strengthen muscles and relieve pressure on the nerve
  • Medications – Anti-inflammatory drugs or corticosteroids to reduce inflammation and pain
  • Surgery – In severe cases, surgery may be required to relieve pressure on the nerve

Treating a herniated disc

  • Medications – Pain relievers, anti-inflammatories, and muscle relaxants
  • Physical therapy – Specific exercises to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine and reduce disc pressure
  • Epidural injections – Steroid injections to reduce inflammation around the affected nerve
  • Surgery – Options include discectomy (removal of part of the disc) and spinal fusion (joining two or more vertebrae)

Prevention Tips

Preventing a pinched nerve

  • Ergonomics – Maintain good posture and use ergonomic furniture.
  • Regular breaks – Avoid staying in one position for too long.
  • Exercise – Engage in regular physical activity to keep muscles strong and flexible.
  • Weight management – Maintain a healthy weight to reduce pressure on nerves.

Preventing a herniated disc

  • Proper lifting techniques – Use your legs to lift heavy objects, not your back.
  • Strengthening exercises – Focus on core and back muscles to support the spine.
  • Healthy lifestyle – Avoid smoking and maintain a healthy weight to reduce disc degeneration.

When to Seek Medical Help

If you experience persistent pain, numbness, or weakness, it is essential to seek medical advice. Early intervention can prevent further complications and ensure you receive the appropriate treatment for your condition.

While pinched nerves and herniated discs can cause similar symptoms, they are distinct conditions requiring different approaches to diagnosis and treatment. Understanding these differences can help you manage your symptoms effectively and improve your quality of life.

If your pain is severe and long-lasting, surgery may be discussed and potentially recommended. For example, if you have a pinched nerve due to a herniated disc that is not responding to conservative treatment, a discectomy may be the best option. Although this is generally a very successful procedure, 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 beginning 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 today.

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