November 17, 2022 What’s the Difference Between a Herniated Disc and Sciatica?

What’s the Difference Between a Herniated Disc and Sciatica?

What’s the Difference Between a Herniated Disc and Sciatica?

Back pain is one of the most common medical conditions, affecting 80% of the population at some point in their lives. Chronic or permanent symptoms will affect 7-8% of the population.

It can range in severity and even affect your movement, sleep, and quality of life. However, back pain can arise due to multiple reasons.

The truth is that your spine is a very complex structure. Made up of 24 vertebrae (bones) and rubbery, shock-absorbing discs between them, overuse, injury, disease, and aging can all impact your spine in one way or another.

Together, vertebrae and discs protect and support your spinal cord, allowing you to bend and twist. Yet, when your discs come under strain or face wear and tear, back pain may result. So, let’s examine two common causes of back pain?—herniated discs and sciatica. Why does a herniated disc happen? What’s the difference between a herniated disc and sciatica? And most importantly, what can you do about the pain these conditions cause?

How Can You Tell the Difference Between a Herniated Disc and Sciatica?

A herniated disc and sciatica can give way to similar symptoms. This is partial because a herniated disc can cause sciatica. However, these two conditions can also happen separately from one another. Let’s take a closer look!

Herniated Disc

Each disc contains a gel-like substance that acts as a shock absorber in your spine. When this substance is squeezed out of the disc, it is called a herniated or ruptured disc. This usually occurs in the lower spine but can affect the neck as well.

This “jelly” puts pressure on your spinal cord and irritates and inflames nearby nerve roots, leading to the following symptoms or what is known as a radiculopathy:

  • Numbness – a loss of sensation in the leg or arm/shoulder on one side
  • Weakness – losing strength on one side making walking, balancing, or carrying weight more difficult
  • Pain – sharp shooting pain down one leg or into the shoulder and arm
  • Incontinence – in severe cases, you can lose control of your bladder or bowels. This is very serious and needs prompt medical attention!

A herniated disc must be treated carefully to avoid further damage—or even potentially life-long complications!


Your sciatic nerve branches from your lower back through the buttocks and down the back of your legs. This nerve has two branches; sensory and motor. It helps move your legs and feet, as well as feel sensations in your legs. When it becomes compressed or inflamed, you feel pain.

Sciatica is actually more of a symptom rather than a diagnosis. Simply put, if you suffer from sciatica, you need to discover its root cause. One of the most common causes is a herniated disc. Other causes include osteoarthritis, soft tissue damage, trauma, and pregnancy.

Some common signs of sciatica include:

  • Pain – shooting or burning pain radiating to the buttocks down the back of the leg to the foot.
  • Numbness or tingling – anywhere along the nerve pathway down your leg.
  • Weakness in one leg – compressed nerves don’t carry signals to and from your limbs very well.

Sciatica, depending on its cause, can resolve on its own. Yet, it’s important to note that self-diagnosis can be a dangerous game to play—especially when it comes to your spine. X-rays, scans, and a diagnosis by a healthcare professional ensure appropriate care and improve your chance of full recovery.

How Do You Fix a Herniated Disc?

Depending on the severity of the damage, it’s entirely possible to heal a herniated disc. The following includes the treatment options for a herniated disc (and sciatica!). Always opt for the gentlest, non-invasive option that suits your situation or coincides with your doctor’s and physiotherapist’s advice.

1.    Surgery

Spinal surgery is for extreme cases where there is no chance for the disc to heal on its own. It usually involves the removal of the herniated “jelly” and broken fragments that put pressure on your sciatic nerve. This is usually a last resort option, with other treatments (such as those below) being tried first.

2.    Rest

The body is excellent at healing. In mild cases, the bulging “jelly” from the disc naturally dissolves. This relieves the pain while the disc heals. In fact, many cases of back pain resolve or improve significantly within a month of onset.

In the meantime, remove any jarring or strenuous activities from your routine. The idea is to move in such a way that you don’t feel pain, such as walking or gentle stretching. Bed rest isn’t necessary. In fact, bed rest may actually make your back pain worse and is no longer recommended.

3.    Anti-Inflammatory Treatment

Anti-inflammatory drugs or steroid injections reduce inflammation to provide pain relief while the body heals naturally. This option is often used alongside other treatments. An important note here: Avoid using non prescribed NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for longer than 10 days as this may lead to undesirable gastrointestinal issues.

4.    Physiotherapy

After careful examination, a physiotherapist uses a combination of treatments like mobilisation, traction, education, modalities to settle your muscle spasm and pain, taping/bracing and temperature treatments (hot and cold) to reduce pain and inflammation. They also use specific exercises to strengthen your back and abdominal muscles and get you moving—one of the best ways to support a weak or damaged spine and prevent further injury or deterioration!

If you suffer from back pain, sciatica, or any stiffness, contact us today or book your free phone consultation to find out how we can help. At Turramurra Sports and Spinal Physiotherapy, we are experts at non-invasive rehabilitation and spinal care. We are here to help support your recovery and healing journey.

We also offer a free information pack “The Science behind Shockwave Therapy and Five Simple Ways to Relieve a Herniated Disc”. Click HERE to find out more and download your copy today.

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