The spinal discs are shock-absorbing cushions between the vertebrae. Vertebrae are the large bones of the spinal column. If the spinal column tears open and the discs protrude outward, they can press on, or “pinch,” nearby spinal nerves. This is known as a ruptured, herniated, or slipped disc.
A ruptured disc causes severe low back pain and, sometimes, shooting pain down the back of the legs, which is known as sciatica. Usually the symptoms of a disc rupture heal on their own after a few weeks to a month. If the problem persists for months and becomes chronic, you may choose to eventually consider surgery.
Severe low back pain on its own may be a symptom of a ruptured disc, but it can also be caused by strains or sprains of muscles, tendons, and ligaments. However, low back pain combined with shooting pain down the back of one or both legs (sciatica) usually points to a herniated or ruptured disc.
The telltale signs of sciatica include:
- sharp pain down the back of the buttocks and leg (usually one leg)
- tingling in part of the leg or in the foot
- weakness in the leg
If you have a ruptured disc, sciatica may get worse when you bend over with your legs straight or when you sit. That’s because those movements tug on the sciatic nerve. You may also feel a sharp pain when you sneeze, cough, or sit on the toilet.