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Is It Muscle Strain or a Herniated Disc Causing Your Pain? Let's Explore The Best Way To Find Out!

Is It Muscle Strain or a Herniated Disc Causing Your Pain? Let's Explore The Best Way To Find Out!

Dr. Michael Derry, DPT, PT, OCS Jacksonville, Florida
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Let's review what the research shows and what I have learned after treating back pain for nearly 10 years. Herniated discs and muscle strains are very common but they can feel very different. Let's explore how to identify the cause, the difference between each, and services that can provide you with relief.

How to Identify Your Low Back Pain: Is It Muscle Strain or a Herniated Disc?

Muscle strains typically cause deep throbbing pain that is localized, exacerbated by movement, and may be accompanied by muscle spasms. On the other hand, if you're dealing with a herniated disc, the symptoms might include sharp, shooting pain that can radiate from the spine to other areas such as the buttocks or down the leg, often referred to as sciatica. Disc pain often comes along with nerve like symptoms.

Muscle Strain or Herniated Disc?
Muscle Strain or Herniated Disc?

If you're experiencing back pain, it's not uncommon to wonder whether it's due to muscle strain or a herniated disc. Back injuries can manifest in various ways, and understanding the symptoms can help you seek the right treatment. Common causes of back pain, especially in the lower back, are often likely caused by muscle strain. The muscles in your back work hard to support your spine, and when they're overused or injured, it can result in discomfort that ranges from mild to severe intensity.

Herniated discs occur when the soft center of a spinal disc migrates to the through a crack in the exterior casing.

Low back pain may be a sign of ongoing issues such as a herniated disc or muscle strain that has not been adequately treated. It is essential to pay attention to the type of pain you are experiencing and consult a movement professional to help you decipher your pain and limitations.

If your back pain persists or is accompanied by other symptoms like numbness or weakness in the limbs, it's crucial to consult health professionals. Don't let back pain dictate your life's rhythm; understanding whether it's a muscle strain or a herniated disc is your first step in regaining your spine health!

Understanding Herniated Disc Symptoms and Disc Problems

Herniated discs, sometimes referred to as slipped disc, can lead to overlap in symptoms with muscular issues; however, there are distinctive signs that set them apart. Pain from a disc herniation can occur with or without lower back pain, nerve pain, and potential weakness in the leg.

Most often I see leg pain, numbness and tingling, and weakness when I treat patients with disc herniations. I know it sounds scary but they are actually very common and complete recovery is possible

Typically, a herniated disc involves the inner gel-like core of the disc migrating towards the spinal nerve root causing inflammation and nerve pain. This can lead not only to pain but also inflammation around the affected spinal disc. The inflammation is actually what causes the pain.

Herniated discs can complete resolve on their own over time! Studies have shown that many people have complete reabsorption and don't require treatments like surgery and injections.

On the other hand, cervical herniated discs can lead to symptoms in the neck, shoulders, arms, and even hands. Furthermore, the degree of disc herniation can also impact the severity of symptoms.

At Revision Health Services, we recognize that spinal health is integral to overall well-being. We encourage anyone experiencing symptoms like these to seek professional assessment. Remember, while muscle strain is commonly self-limiting, symptoms of disc problems, particularly those of a herniated disc, can persist without proper intervention, which could include physical therapy.

Be attentive to your body's signals, and don't hesitate to reach out for help; a proactive approach can significantly improve your quality of life.

Diagnosing the Source of Pain: Spinal Muscles or Herniated Discs?

Encountering back pain can be an alarming experience, often leaving you unsure what is causing your pain. T'his is a question I try to answer everyday when I am treating clients. At Revision Health Services, we understand that spine pain can be scary and make you feel uncertain. That's why we do our best to pinpoint the precise cause of your discomfort is crucial so we can get you back to your normal self.

There are three main ways to diagnose the source of pain. Imaging, injections, or the physical examination.

Intuitively we wanna have an image to see the exact structures in your back, but muscle pain and disc pain may not show up on an MRI. Often times people have many incidental findings that have no relevancy to their pain. In fact, the research is very clear that you should not receive an image for pain early on.

Injections can seem helpful in that they are often described in a way to provide a quick fix to lower back pain. I can tell you, they are not. They come with risks and are often not reliable for long term relief.

The physical examination is ideal. This can be done by a physical therapists and it's a low risk and often accurate way to help figure out the source of pain. We need to use what you are feeling, how you present and clinical judgement to help you make the best informed decision.

At Revision Health Services, we're committed to guiding our patients through a journey to pain-free living. All the muscles and discs in your back work harmoniously to support your spine; therefore, it's imperative to address back pain with a holistic approach.

We have to get to know your body and your pain! 

Whether your pain is stemming from strained muscles or herniated discs, we'll devise a tailored plan aimed at providing pain relief and educating you on maintaining a strong, and resilient back.

Back Pain Relief: Services Tailored to Address Muscle and Disc Pain

After we figure out to the most likely cause of your back pain, we move onto the services we offer to provide relief. Addressing herniated disc or muscle strains requires attention and specific tailoring to your body. The most common services we utilize to address muscle and disc pain are manual therapy, dry needling, mobility work, and progressive loading.

Each of these services are evidence-based and are often first line treatments for each of these conditions. They are low risk and will help you design long term plans to ensure spine health.

Whether you’re treating muscle pain or disc pain, it requires a physical therapist to get to know your body, and what services you respond best to. unfortunately, it does take some time and effort, but it is very effective.

The care provided by Revision Health Services isn't just about temporary pain relief; it's about equipping people with the tools to maintain long-term spinal health. Whether it’s strain, a disc problem or other back concerns, don't let pain rule your life. Let's work together to get you on the path to better musculoskeletal health.

In conclusion, whether you're grappling with the deep throbbing pain of a muscle strain or the sharp, shooting pain associated with a herniated disc, understanding the nuances of your back pain is the first step toward reclaiming your spine health. At Revision Health Services, we emphasize the importance of discerning between these conditions and offer a holistic approach to address both muscle and disc-related issues. Don't let back pain dictate your life; seek professional assessment and tailored treatments to relieve your discomfort. Remember, a proactive approach, whether it's through physical therapy, manual therapy, or other evidence-based interventions, can significantly enhance your quality of life and set you on the path to long-term musculoskeletal health.


Q: How can I tell if my back pain is due to muscle strain or a herniated disc?

A: Muscle strain typically causes localized pain in the back that is exacerbated by movement and may include muscle spasms. In contrast, a herniated disc often results in sharp, shooting pain that can radiate to other areas, such as the buttocks or leg, and may involve numbness or weakness. It's important to seek a professional diagnosis, as symptoms can be similar, but the causes and treatments differ.

Q: What should I do if I experience back pain that persists or is accompanied by numbness or weakness in my limbs?

A: Persistent back pain or pain accompanied by numbness or weakness can indicate a more serious issue, such as a herniated disc or nerve impingement. It's crucial to seek an assessment from healthcare professionals like physical therapists to help you make the best decisions for your body

Q: Are the treatments for muscle strains and herniated discs the same?

A: No, the treatments for muscle strains and herniated discs differ because they are two distinct conditions. Muscle strains often respond well to active recovery such as gentle stretching and spinal mobility. While herniated discs may require nerve glides, and other nerve related treatments. At Revision Health Services, we evaluate each patient's condition and create a tailored treatment plan to address their specific needs for optimal recovery.

Q: What kinds of symptoms might indicate a herniated disc in my lower back?

A: Symptoms of a herniated disc in the lower back may include lower back and leg pain. That said, I have seen people only have leg pain and not back pain. They can also cause radiating pain, numbness, or weakness in the extremities, such as in the case of Sciatica.

Q: How can I prevent back pain from becoming a chronic issue?

A: Taking a proactive approach to back health is key to preventing chronic pain. Regular exercise, maintaining proper posture, lifting objects safely, and taking breaks when sitting for long periods can help. If you do experience back pain, don't delay seeking help. Early intervention with appropriate care and treatment at Revision Health Services can significantly reduce the risk of chronic pain and improve your quality of life.A common step when I treat someone with back pain is to determine if their discomfort is coming from a muscle or a disc. They are very different and their pathways look very different in regard to recovery and how the client actually feels. Figuring out what is causing the back discomfort will save you time, money and frustration.

Dr. Michael Derry is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and board certified in orthopedics. He is very passionate about treating lower back pain and helping people build their resiliency. He has spent time assisting at universities as well as managing large clinics before starting his own practice in Jacksonville, FL.

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