Many people have to live with back or spine-related pain, and it can be hard to know the source, even with a physical examination by a medical professional. One common source of back pain is a spinal disc problem, but even if that is known, the source of the discomfort has multiple possible sources. For example, it could be from an irritated nerve or from issues more directly impacting the disc itself.
Finding the difference between the two is often a source of confusion. This diagnosis is not made any easier by doctors often using various terms to describe the problem. They may call it a slipped disc, pinched nerve, protruding disc, or degenerated disc.
With many potential sources for back pain and many terms flying around, it is hard for someone without medical training to know what is what. Therefore, what exactly is the difference between a degenerated disc and a pinched nerve is a question that is more common than necessary. So let’s discuss some common key differences between pinched nerves and degenerated discs for back pain and possible treatment modalities.
Pain Caused by a Degenerated Disc
When the source of a person’s back pain is their intervertebral disc, it is called discogenic back pain. There are a variety of reasons that a spinal disc may degenerate throughout a person’s life. General wear and tear that comes with age and direct trauma can both cause pain, but more specific reasons for back pain caused by a degenerated disc include:
- Dehydration in the intervertebral disc that degeneration results in the loss of fluid content and shrinkage. The amount of disc shrinkage can result in the spinal canal’s narrowing and can lead to a case of radiculopathy.
- Motion Segment Instability: Degeneration of the intervertebral disc can eventually make a person’s spinal segment unstable. This degeneration can make the back less effective in resisting the spine’s regular motions.
- Inflammation: In the case of an intervertebral disc, degenerating inflammatory proteins may get released into the disc space. In some cases, the degenerated disc may even herniate. In these cases, it often leads to the inner inflammatory contents leaking. The inflammatory agents that leak into this space may inflame or irritate nearby nerves or muscles, leading to pain. A herniated disc may also be a source of a pinched nerve on top of a degenerated disc.
According to Doctor Claflin of Oklahoma, when the body tries to counteract the pain, inflammation, and instability the degenerated disc generates leads to the area that may begin to spasm. These spasms may lead to their own shooting pains, sharp pains, or worsening back pain already experienced, further exacerbating the condition.
Pain caused by a degenerated disc might localize to just a person’s back, but it is also possible for it to radiate out as far as the back of their legs. Cases of this are known as radiculopathy.
Pain Caused by a Pinched Nerve
In other cases, a pinched nerve causes the pain. For example, when a person’s spinal disc causes irritation, unnecessary mechanical compression, or nerve root inflammation, the cause may not be because that disc is hurt or damaged. Instead, the pain may result from the disc intruding on the nerve resulting in sharp nerve pain.
Pain from a pinched nerve root in a person’s lower back can radiate along the entire nerve path. As a result, the pain can reach as far down as a person’s leg or foot. This exacerbation may lead to neurological problems, such as weakness, numbness, pins-and-needles sensations, or tingling at irregular intervals.
The medical term for this type of pain is radiculopathy. When radiculopathy occurs from compression or irritation of a specific nerve root in the lower back, it is also often referred to as sciatica.
While there are many reasons that a pinched nerve may occur, some of the more common causes include the following:
- Bone spurs that happen as a result of osteoarthritis
- Herniated discs may cause several other conditions, such as a degenerated disc
- Spinal stenosis
Other conditions that are not as common but can still be the reason for a pinched nerve include spondylolisthesis, tumors, or an infection.
Why the Differences Between Pinched Nerves and Degenerated Discs Matter
For many, the first thought when dealing with their back pain will be how to get rid of it quickly. Depending on what their doctor initially recommends, there are several treatments that they may try to help minimize or relieve the pain. However, these pain treatments only address a symptom of a more significant problem.
Both pinched nerves and especially degenerated discs are underlying issues that will only worsen with time. Therefore, correctly diagnosing the underlying cause of a person’s back pain is essential to begin treatment promptly or prevent or minimize further damage or injury.
That is why it is necessary to understand and look for the differences between a pinched nerve and a degenerated disc. While both conditions share the symptom of pain, the style of pain and the other symptoms they come with will likely vary for most people.
As a result, notify a doctor as quickly as possible when experiencing back pain that lasts more than two weeks. Getting an earlier diagnosis will help a person figure out the root cause of their pain faster for more targeted relief and prevent the worsening of the condition.
More importantly, it will also minimize further damage from either condition going without treatment for too long. The sooner a degenerated disc or a pinched nerve is found, the sooner a medical professional can initiate a proper treatment plan to slow down the degradation of the disc or to handle the nerve.
Pain is a single symptom of both underlying causes and will only worsen the longer a patient goes without proper treatment. Therefore, getting a doctor to conduct relevant diagnostic and clinical tests to confirm the exact cause of a person’s pain is always the first step in handling the underlying cause of a person’s pain. Getting a second opinion from another medical professional may be appropriate to ensure receiving the correct diagnosis. In addition, having a plan for the long term means less pain in the future.