Why a Herniated Disc Causes Referred Pain

Herniated Disc CausesA herniated disc causes many different types of symptoms, from shooting pain to muscle weakness to a pins-and-needles sensation. Depending on the location of the herniated disc, these symptoms can reach as far as the fingers and toes. Why? Because all of the nerves that provide muscle and sensory stimulation throughout the body are extensions of the spinal nerve roots that branch off the spinal cord. If an anatomical abnormality like a herniated disc intrudes on the spaces in the spinal column where the spinal cord and its nerve roots reside, and nerve tissue becomes compressed, pain signals may be sent along the entire path of the compressed nerve.

In the case of a herniated disc in the cervical spine, the presence of both localized neck pain and referred pain will depend on whether a specific nerve root is being compressed. There are seven vertebrae in the cervical region of the spine, labeled C1-C7. The first two vertebrae, the atlas (C1) and the axis (C2), form a joint that connects the skull to the spine and helps the head move from side to side. The remaining five vertebrae assist in supporting the weight of the skull and facilitating flexion and extension, which involve moving the head forward and backward, respectively. Unlike the first two vertebrae, C3-C7 are separated by intervertebral discs. The discs help to absorb shock and provide flexibility to the neck.

Pairs of cervical nerve roots branch out from the top portion of the spinal cord and travel through openings on either side between the cervical vertebrae. When a herniated disc causes nerve compression of one or more of these nerve roots, the following symptoms can occur:

  • C5 nerve root – can cause shoulder pain and muscle weakness in the upper arm
  • C6 nerve root – can cause weakness in the biceps and wrists, in addition to tingling along the inside of the hand and thumb
  • C7 nerve root – can cause weakness in the muscles at the back of the arm and the fingers, in addition to tingling in the middle finger
  • C8 nerve root – can cause weakness when the hand tries to grip something, in addition to shooting pain in the entire arm and outside of the hand

Some people also find that a cervical herniated disc causes pain within the disc itself, as well as soreness or tenseness in the muscles and ligaments of the neck, which can contribute to localized neck pain and/or headaches. If your doctor diagnoses you with a herniated disc in the neck, a regimen of conservative treatments will likely help the discomfort to dissipate. Common therapies include physical therapy, stretching, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, and hot/cold compresses.

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