Is It a Lumbar Sprain or Herniated Disc? How Do I Know?


Herniated discs and lumbar sprains are two of the most common back problems afflicting people today. And they’re not often easy to tell apart. But there are ways to differentiate between a lumbar sprain and a herniated disc.

Back sprains are usually relegated to the back area, meaning they don’t cause pain elsewhere. The pain also tends to lessen when bending forward and return when straightening from a forward bend. Herniated discs usually cause pain down the leg and tend to hurt with any back movement. 

That said, a back sprain can hurt with any back movement as well. It’s simply not as expected. Herniated discs don’t always cause pain, either. Luckily there are other ways to tell if you sprained your back or have a herniated disc. Read on to discover how.

What’s The Difference Between a Herniated Disc and a Lumbar Sprain?

The main difference between a herniated disc and a lumbar sprain is the part of the body that is injured. A sprain affects the ligaments between two bones, otherwise known as a joint. A joint is held together with fibrous, tough tissue that can become damaged or torn.

A herniated disc, on the other hand, happens to the discs between the vertebrae, otherwise known as spinal joints. The spinal discs are essentially cushions between vertebrae. When one becomes injured, it bulges out and can press on a nerve along the spine, causing pain in the back and other areas.

Herniated discs can heal on their own without surgery, but they often require some form of conservative treatment. Sprains and strains can benefit from conventional treatment but can often be addressed at home quickly.

Back Sprain vs. Back Strain

We’re technically talking about two things when talking about a sprain or a strain. These terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. A sprain affects the ligaments between bones, whereas a strain affects the muscles or tendons that secure muscles to bones.

Herniated Disc Symptoms

To distinguish between a herniated disc and a back strain or sprain, it’s essential to know the symptoms of each. Herniated discs come with common symptoms such as:

  • Pain down one leg.
  • Pain down the arms (in case of a herniated disc in the upper spine).
  • Pain with specific movements, such as bending down, standing up, or sitting.
  • Pain that gets worse at night.
  • Weakness in the back or affected leg.
  • Tingling, numbness, or a burning feeling.

The long-term effects of a herniated disc vary widely. If left untreated, some may require surgery while others will not. This is why it’s best to get professional help if you suspect you have a herniated disc.

Herniated Disc Tests

The best way to diagnose a herniated disc is with the help of a medical professional. You can pay attention to the symptoms above and get a good idea of whether you have a herniated disc, but a physician or chiropractor can help identify the issue correctly. You can expect some tests and questions to diagnose a herniated disc. These include:

1) Reflex Tests

  • Many people with lumbar disc herniations have dulled reflexes related to the patellar tendon. The doctor may tap just below the kneecap with a rubber hammer to see how the reflexes work. If they are dulled, it’s often a sign of a herniated disc.

2) Range of Motion

  • You may be asked to lean forward or back, bend over, sit, stand, and walk around in specific ways. The medical professional will often ask when you feel pain because pain during specific movements indicates a herniated disc.

3) LaSegue Test

  • Also known as the leg raise test, you may be asked to lay flat on your back while the doctor or chiropractor raises your straight leg until you feel pain. Where your leg is during this test is a good indication of the cause of your pain.

4) Imaging Tests

  • If the physical tests don’t show conclusive results, some medical professionals may want to take imaging tests such as an MRI, X-Ray, EG, or CT scan. However, this depends on the severity of your pain and other factors the doctor determines.

Lumbar Sprain Symptoms

Lumbar sprains and strains present similar symptoms. These often include:

  • Pain and stiffness in the lower back and as low as the buttocks, but not the legs.
  • Limited range of motion due to stiffness and pain.
  • Muscle spasms in the affected area.
  • Pain tends to lessen when bending forward.

Sprains or strains are usually the result of injury caused by such typical movements as standing up, stretching, sitting down, picking something up, or reaching for something. They also tend to respond well in the short term to ice and anti-inflammatory medicine.

Lumbar Sprain Tests

Many of the tests for lumbar sprains are similar to those for disc herniation. How you respond to the tests will tell the physician or doctor of chiropractic whether you have a herniation or a sprain.

The most common sprain tests involve a range of motion and reflexes. Sometimes a medical professional can even diagnose a sprain or strain on your symptoms alone.

Herniated Disc Treatment

Herniated Disc Treatment

Most common disc herniations don’t require surgery to correct. However, this depends on the cause of the herniation, the severity, and overall health and lifestyle of the patient. Healing naturally is usually the best option, so conservative treatments should be exhausted before surgery is considered.

The first course of action for handling herniated discs is to get the pain under control. There are several treatment options available to do this:

  • Ice therapy to reduce pain and swelling.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Muscle relaxants and painkillers for spasms and severe pain.
  • Limited rest (usually no more than two days).
  • Heat therapy (typically only used after the first two days and once the swelling is down).
  • Steroid injections.

Once the pain is under control and the swelling is down, other treatment options can focus on addressing the herniation. These treatments include:

  • Chiropractic adjustments
    • Chiropractors can help heal herniated discs effectively in many ways. The most common is usually a series of spinal adjustments to remove the disc’s pressure and correct the underlying issues.
  • Physical Therapy
    • Often used in conjunction with chiropractic care, physical therapy can help return strength and improve the range of motion in the back.
  • Acupuncture
  • Massage Therapy

How Long Does It Take for a Herniated Disc to Heal?

Herniated discs vary widely in how long they take to heal. In most cases, they heal within 6 to 8 weeks. When conservative treatments are employed, such as chiropractic care, some patients see relief in as little as a few days or a week. Your overall health and ability to follow treatment protocols will also affect healing.

The worst thing you can do for a herniated disc is get too much bed rest. It may seem counterintuitive, but the back muscles and the spine need to be used gently to facilitate healing and help prevent future injuries.

Back Sprain Treatment

Although severe back sprains and strains can be incredibly painful, the need for surgery or anything other than conservative treatments is rare. Nearly 90% of back sprain and strain injuries heal fully without surgery. Some treatment options include:

  • Ice therapy for the first 48 hours.
  • Limited rest (usually no more than three days).
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
  • Muscle relaxants and painkillers (for severe cases).
  • Different chiropractic adjustments and/or massage therapy.

How Long Does It Take for Lumbar Sprain to Heal?

How quickly a sprained back heals depends on many factors. Your overall health is perhaps the most significant factor. Poor health will make the healing process slow. If you can’t avoid using your back muscles immediately after the initial injury, you could increase the healing time by weeks or months.

Most lumbar sprains take 3 to 4 weeks to heal. Some can heal in as little as a few days, while others take up to 10 weeks or more. If your sprain hasn’t improved within a week, consider seeing our chiropractor or physical therapist for help.

Lumbar Sprain vs. Herniated Disc

Although often confused, a lumbar sprain and a herniated disc present some specific symptoms that differ significantly. With the help of a qualified medical professional, you can determine which one you are suffering from.

Luckily, most people heal fully from both injuries, and neither one of them rarely requires surgery very frequently. Conservative treatments are the best, safest bet for treatment. Chiropractic care is ideal because it helps to address the underlying cause of the injury, allowing you to ward off future sprains or herniations.

Preventing Lumbar Sprain and Herniated Disc

Prevention is always better than cure, especially regarding lumbar sprain and herniated discs. Specific proactive measures can significantly reduce the risk of these conditions. Regular physical activity can support the spine, including exercises that strengthen the back and core muscles. Maintaining a healthy weight reduces pressure on the spine, and being mindful of ergonomics, especially during lifting and sitting, can help maintain proper spinal alignment. Lastly, smoking cessation is vital, as it can prevent disc degeneration, a common cause of herniated discs.

Rehabilitation and Recovery: Lumbar Sprain vs Herniated Disc

Following successful treatment, it’s essential to focus on rehabilitation and recovery. This process will look different for lumbar sprain and herniated disc due to the nature of these conditions.

With a lumbar sprain, once the acute phase has passed, focus shifts to regaining full function through a series of exercises designed to improve strength, flexibility, and endurance without exacerbating the injury. However, rehabilitation may be more complex and extensive with a herniated disc. It often involves pain management, physical therapy, and lifestyle modifications to prevent further disc damage and ensure the long-term health of your spine.

Both conditions, however, respond far better with patient commitment to the rehab process and adherence to the advice and exercise regimens prescribed by their healthcare professionals.

Lumbar Sprain and Herniated Disc: Impact on Long-term Health

While a lumbar sprain and herniated disc can cause substantial discomfort and disrupt daily routines, their long-term health implications can differ. Lumbar sprains, when managed appropriately, typically do not lead to lasting complications. However, if left untreated or if management protocols are not followed, they can cause chronic back pain and potentially contribute to developing other conditions such as degenerative disc disease.

In contrast, a herniated disc carries a greater risk of long-term complications. The affected area may be more prone to future herniations even after recovery. Chronic pain, nerve damage, and in severe cases, loss of bowel or bladder control (often associated with a condition known as Cauda Equina syndrome) are potential risks. This underscores the importance of following the prescribed treatment plan closely, even after symptoms have subsided.

Regular follow-ups with healthcare professionals are crucial in both cases to monitor progress, adjust treatment plans as necessary, and manage potential complications. Long-term, proactive management can help individuals regain their quality of life and minimize the risk of future issues.

Conclusion: Understanding Lumbar Sprain and Herniated Disc

In conclusion, lumbar sprain and herniated disc may both cause significant discomfort and interfere with daily activities, but understanding their differences is vital for proper treatment. They are not the same and require different treatments.

Lumbar sprains, often resulting from strained muscles or ligaments, typically heal with conservative treatments such as ice therapy, rest, and chiropractic adjustments. On the other hand, a herniated disc occurs when the soft interior of a spinal disc pushes out through a tear in the disc’s exterior. It might require additional interventions like physical therapy, acupuncture, and in severe cases, surgery.

Always consult a healthcare professional if you experience persistent back pain, as timely diagnosis and treatment can substantially improve recovery and prevent further complications.

Rediscover Life Unhindered at Better Health Anchorage

Imagine a world where every step is a celebration, not a struggle. Where bending to tie your shoelaces or lifting a grocery bag doesn’t trigger a grimace but a smile. This is the world we create for you.

Our experienced physical therapists help Anchorage locals treat both lumbar sprain and herniated disc. They are armed with an array of exercises and techniques meticulously designed to strengthen your back, enhance flexibility, and restore your range of motion. We’re here to help you reclaim the joy of movement. Are you ready to embrace a future free from back pain?