Diagnosing a ruptured disc

By Michael Perry, M.D.

Diagnosing a ruptured disc usually involves a review of medical history, discussion of symptoms and a physical examination. The physical examination will help to identify the source of pain and the degree to which the condition is affecting mobility. Many patients diagnosed with a ruptured disc have made an appointment with their primary care physician or other specialist after dealing with neck or back pain that has not resolved after a short period of time.

Diagnosing a ruptured disc with imaging tests

After a medical history review, physical exam and discussion of your symptoms, a ruptured disc diagnosis may also require diagnostic and imaging tests, such as:

  • X-rays
  • Blood tests
  • CT scans
  • MRIs
  • A myelogram
  • An electromyogram
  • Discography
  • Nerve root block tests

Some of these tests — like X-rays and blood tests — are not meant to reach a positive diagnosis of a ruptured disc, but can rule out other conditions like an infection, fracture or tumor. One reason diagnosing a ruptured disc can be difficult is because symptoms of numbness, weakness and tingling in the arm, lower back, thigh or leg can resemble other conditions, including sciatica or spinal stenosis.

Causes and treatment options

When a disc becomes damaged, either due to aging or injury, the tough outer layer can break open and push out the jellylike material inside. A ruptured disc, also called a herniated disc, is not necessarily painful by itself, but it can put pressure on nerve roots or the spinal cord — causing pain, numbness, weakness, tingling both locally and radiating to the extremities.

If you’re experiencing neck pain or lower back pain, contact your physician for diagnosis and treatment options. Most physicians will begin with conservative treatments such as rest, pain medication, hot and cold therapy as well as physical therapy.

For symptoms that persist despite conservative treatments, patients might require surgery to find relief. Traditional open spine surgery is a highly invasive process that disrupts important supporting muscles and requires extended hospitalization and a long, difficult rehabilitation period. Minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute is an alternative to traditional open neck or back surgery, offering our patients a shorter recovery time§ and less risk of complication.

We offer a no-cost review of your MRI or CT scan* to determine if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive outpatient procedures. Contact us today to learn more.