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Pinched nerve vs. herniated disc: What's the difference?

Pinched nerve vs. herniated disc: What's the difference?
3 minutes, 21 seconds

If you’re hearing the terms “pinched nerve” and “herniated disc” but aren’t sure exactly what they are, let alone the difference between them, keep reading. The two terms aren’t the same but are closely related to each other. 

It can be tricky to distinguish if you’re experiencing a pinched nerve vs. a herniated disc because the symptoms are so similar. You may even have both at the same time. You can determine which is affecting you by consulting with a medical professional who can help diagnose your condition and prescribe you the right treatment, like physical therapy. To better understand the difference between these two medical terms, keep reading more about their symptoms, key differences and the types of treatment methods for each.

What are the symptoms of a pinched nerve vs. a herniated disc?

  • Pinched nerve — Pinched nerve symptoms can vary. Some patients may feel sharp, stabbing pain while others may feel aching or throbbing pain. Others may feel tingling. Some patients may even experience numbness or decreased ability to feel sensations in the area. 
  • Herniated disc — When a herniated disc places pressure on a nerve in your back, it can cause symptoms like pain, tingling or numbness down an affected limb. Some patients also report experiencing muscle weakness in limbs that may be affected by the herniated disc, while others may get muscle spasms from overuse. It’s worth noting that some patients may not experience noticeable symptoms at all.

What is the difference between a pinched nerve vs. a herniated disc?

  • Pinched nerve — A pinched nerve involves a nerve that has excess pressure applied to it by something near to it. Pinched nerves can occur from nearby tendons, bones, muscles and cartilage abnormalities that push on a nerve. Treatment for pinched nerves is similar to treatments for herniated discs.
  • Herniated disc — A herniated disc occurs when some of the rubbery nuclei inside of a vertebra in the spinal column slip through a small tear in the bone. Herniated discs are not the same as a pinched nerve; rather, they’re often the cause of a pinched nerve. When the nucleus of the vertebrae slips through the tear in the bone, it can place added pressure on nerves and cause irritation and inflammation. Herniated discs also most often affect the lower back. For patients with this condition, pain can be caused by a disc placing pressure on a nerve or from inflammation, shrinkage and instability of the herniated disc.

What kind of treatment can you get for pinched nerves vs. herniated discs?

  • Pinched nerve — Pinched nerves often necessitate rest. Physicians will often recommend that you rest the area where the pinched nerve is located, to give time for the area to become less inflamed or irritated. Another common treatment option for pinched nerves is to receive physical therapy treatment. Physical therapy sessions can help patients with this condition to support the areas around the pinched nerve by building strength in adjacent regions of the body. This treatment method can help alleviate pressure placed on the nerve. In less severe cases, pinched nerves can be helped with anti-inflammatory medications.
  • Herniated disc — Herniated discs can be treated in several ways. Physical therapy is most often used to reduce inflammation and alleviate pressure on the nerves for those with herniated discs. Pain medication and anti-inflammatory medications can also be used to treat herniated discs. It is worth noting, however, that this solution isn’t as effective at treating the problem at its source. Using pain medication is more of a short-term solution for patients with herniated discs. In severe cases, surgery may be required when symptoms don’t improve or if they worsen after six weeks.

Alliance PTP is ready to help you find top-notch PT whether you have a pinched nerve or a herniated disc

At Alliance Physical Therapy Partners, we’re proudly bringing together physical therapy practices across the country to help people get the high-quality PT they need. Want to see a physical therapist in person? We can put you in touch with an Alliance PTP partner that’s close to you and that can help you address your condition whether it’s a pinched nerve or herniated disc. 

Not keen on in-person PT sessions or not close to an Alliance PTP partner? No worries. We also offer effective and affordable virtual physical therapy through our Agile Virtual Physical Therapy platform. 

Contact our team today so we can help you find the most effective physical therapy services for your injury or condition.

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