It can be frightening to suddenly notice that your back, arms or legs are numb. That feeling of tingling is often an indication that you’re suffering from one of many spinal conditions, and they’re usually accompanied by back pain of varying severity. This combination of tingling and numbness in the spine can produce neck, back, arm or leg pain can make everyday tasks difficult and keeps your quality of life from reaching its potential.
When you’re not sure what’s causing your spine numbness and tingling, you may feel helpless and unsure of how to seek help. The following breakdown of spinal conditions may be able to help pinpoint what’s causing you to lose sensation or experience uncomfortable tingling.
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body. It starts at the lumbar portion of the spine and reaches through your buttocks, all the way down the back of your leg and through the foot to the big toe. You have two of these nerves, one on each side of your body. The sciatic nerves are also the largest, with a thickness comparable to your little finger.
With the extensive reach and size of the sciatic nerve, it comes as no surprise that the pain associated with injuring it can be completely debilitating. When the sciatic nerve is compressed or pinched by a herniated disc or boney growth called spinal stenosis, you’ll experience severe shooting pains that are often accompanied by intermittent numbness and a persistent feeling of weakness. This state is called radiculopathy or sciatica.
The sciatic nerve is responsible for controlling multiple muscles in your lower legs, as well as sensation to the skin of your feet. Sciatica is a particularly difficult condition because your symptoms can vary based on where the nerve is compressed or irritated. You might feel burning down the front of your shins or a cramping sensation in your outer thighs. Tingling in the legs is also very common. It’s a little different for everyone.
The good news about sciatic nerve pain is that it can often be treated without surgery, right in your own home. These three tools can help reduce the symptoms of sciatica, often within three months:
- Stretching and exercises
- Hot and cold compresses
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication
If sciatica doesn’t respond to conservative treatment and physical therapy, you may need to consult a spine surgeon for resolution.
2. Herniated Disc
Your spine’s vertebrae are constantly in a state of bending and flexing, so they require cushioning to absorb the force of our body weight, stay aligned and healthy. This need is fulfilled by small discs, which are round and flat. They have a tough outer layer called the annulus, and an inner layer called the nucleus, that helps absorb shock between each vertebra.
When a disc is herniated, a fragment from within the nucleus gets pushed out of through the annulus into the spinal canal. Herniated discs are usually caused due to the degenerative condition from normal or traumatic wear and tear on the disc. The herniation can be bulging, or sometimes called a slipped disc, puts pressure on spinal nerves, which leads to potentially debilitating pain. Herniated discs are most common in the lower back, where the pressure on the spine is greatest.
When present in the lumbar spine, a herniated disc may cause lower back pain with numbness or tingling in one or both legs. Herniated discs higher up in the spine in our neck can lead to upper back or neck and shoulder pain and arm numbness and weakness that may stretch to the hands. The back pain and tingling in the hands may interfere severely with day-to-day tasks.
Depending on the location of the disc, the pain may be enough to keep you from getting out of bed for long stretches. Actions as simple as an unexpected cough or sneeze can send your back into spasms or cause cramps.
Risk factors for herniated discs include:
- Growing older
- Poor nutrition
- Lack of exercise
- Poor posture
- Improper lifting or twisting techniques
This condition can be treated with rest, anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy if it’s not too far advanced. If a disc has degenerated and doesn’t respond to treatment, surgery may be required.
3. Bulging Disc
Injury to the spine can cause the outer part of a disc to weaken. In its weakened state, the soft inner part of a disc can start to bulge out through the harder exterior of the disc. Many people live with bulging discs and don’t even realize it, but more severe cases can lead to herniated discs or simply extreme discomfort.
A bulging disc creates painful compression on the spinal cord and exiting nerves in the spine. They can occur anywhere, although they’re most commonly found in the lower back. This form of disc displacement can commonly cause tingling sensations in the lower back as well as the legs and feet.
When a bulging disc occurs in the neck or cervical spine, it causes upper back pain and arm numbness, along with tingling in the arms. You may find that moving your neck at all causes sharp pain down your arm and hand, or experience tightness or spasms in your neck and shoulders.
As a precursor to herniated discs, bulging discs are quite treatable with physical therapy that reduces pressure in the area. If your bulging disc escalates into a hernia, you may want to seek the help of a spinal professional.
4. Pinched Nerve
Sciatica is defined as a condition unto itself because the sciatic nerve is so large and affects such a huge portion of the body. However, you can also pinch a number of other nerves, resulting in pressure that can cause tingling in the legs, back or arms.
Spinal nerves have to pass through narrow areas in the vertebrae called foramen, and they can become compressed or pinched in this tight space. The disc, ligament or surrounding bony structure can exert pressure that translates into pain.
When a nerve gets pinched, your body begins an inflammatory response that you will often feel in your neck or lower back. Tingling in the back and arms is the most common symptom. It usually comes and goes in the early stages but becomes more persistent over time if not treated. Symptoms of a pinched nerve include:
- Numbness or decreased sensation in the area supplied by the nerve
- Pain that may be sharp, burning or aching
- Pain that radiates outward from the area
- Pins and needles
- Muscle weakness
Pinched nerves that cause back pain with tingling hands or legs often results from a bulging or herniated disc. Treating the underlying condition should relieve the pain associated with a pinched nerve.
5. Spinal and Foraminal Stenosis
The term “stenosis” refers to a narrowing in an opening that’s normally larger. Nerves exit the spinal column through the neuroforamen: Two columns of space on either side of the vertebrae. When the neuroforamen narrow partially or completely, the nerves don’t have enough space to sit comfortably. They may become compressed or even trapped, leading to inflammatory pain.
Spinal stenosis causes numbness in the middle of the back, tingling in the arms and legs, and tingling in the back. It also gives rise to the “foot drop,” a phenomenon in which pain and weakness in your leg cause you to drag your foot as you walk. Other symptoms include:
- Trouble walking or standing
- Loss of bowel or bladder control
There are quite a few things that can cause spinal stenosis, including normal wear and tear on the spine due to aging. This condition normally affects people ages 50 and older. Other causes of spinal stenosis include:
- Herniated discs
- Bony overgrowth from osteoarthritis
- Spinal tumors
- Thickening ligaments
- Spinal injuries
Foraminal stenosis is a specific type of spinal stenosis that affects vertebral foramen. The symptoms mirror those of a pinched nerve. If a physician suspects you have stenosis, they will perform a CT scan or MRI to determine whether it is spinal or foraminal.
In some cases, surgery is necessary to open up the space enough for nerves to pass through unhindered. This procedure is called a foraminotomy.
6. Degenerative Disc Disease
This condition is caused by damage to one or more of your spinal discs. It is an age-related condition that sets in as the discs become worn-out and can’t perform their cushioning function the way they used to. For the most part, degenerative disc disease is a result of years of repetitive motions. However, it can be triggered or worsened by traumatic injury to the spine.
Degradation starts with the outer layers of the disc, called the annulus. If these layers tear, it can expose the spinal and exiting nerves to the softer inner layers of the disc. The liquid from the inner layers is irritating to nerve fibers and can directly cause pain. Pain from annular tears is called discogenic pain.
If the irritated fibers are in the cervical region, the condition will cause pain and tingling in your neck, shoulders, and arms. Degenerative disc disease in the lumbar area usually affects the back, buttocks, and thighs, but usually does not progress past the knees. Lower back pain can cause tingling in the hands.
There are many cases in which the degeneration of discs is minor enough not to affect the patient’s quality of life. In other cases, degenerative disc disease can lead to other spinal conditions to make basic functioning difficult. For instance, an annular tear that becomes large enough can allow the disc to herniate. In some cases, intervention in the form of stabilization, fusion or decompression surgery is necessary to reduce pain to bearable levels.
Your spine’s vertebrae are connected by tiny joints known as “facets.” These facets keep your spine in alignment and are critical in your ability to bend over, turn and twist. Spondylolisthesis is the term for when facets weaken or fracture, which causes a vertebra to slip out of place and grate against the bone next to it.
Spondylolisthesis is most often seen in older adults who have done highly physical work for much of their lives. This condition has a few major forms with different causes:
- Dysplastic: A congenital defect in a facet joint that allows it to slip out of place. People are born with this form of spondylolisthesis.
- Isthmic: This type results from a damaged facet joint. People who perform hyperextended motions, especially athletes, are susceptible to this type of damage.
- Degenerative: Degenerative spondylolisthesis happens when arthritis degrades the cartilage in joints. It’s most common in seniors.
- Traumatic: This form of spondylolisthesis results from a traumatic injury to the vertebra.
Spondylolisthesis has a grading system which compares how much a vertebra slips in comparison with the surrounding vertebrae:
- Grade I: Less than 25 percent slippage
- Grade II: Between 25 and 50 percent slippage
- Grade III: Between 50 and 75 percent slippage
- Grade IV: More than 75 percent slippage
- Grade V: The vertebra has completely disengaged from the next one, an event called spondyloptosis.
A unique symptom of spondylolisthesis is tightness in the hamstrings. During a diagnostic test for this condition, you might be asked to lift your leg out straight in front of you. If you have the condition, this is likely to be painful. Your physician will order x-rays or other imaging tests to confirm the presence of a slipped vertebra.
Treatments for spondylolisthesis are similar to those for other spinal conditions. Rest and appropriate exercises, along with a doctor-approved regimen of anti-inflammatory medications, can help most patients. In some cases with numbness and tingling in the legs, a cortisone injection may help.
A hyperextension brace may benefit some patients with isthmic spondylolisthesis. It works to extend the lumbar spine and can facilitate some healing.
Treatment Options for Underlying Causes
Numbness and tingling are unpleasant no matter where they occur in the body, and the only way to stop a spinal condition from progressing is to seek appropriate treatment. Only a doctor can diagnose your condition and prescribe the appropriate treatment.
If you attempt to treat yourself, you may end up making things worse. For example, you might try out a stretch designed for a thoracic herniated disc and end up hurting yourself because you actually have a pinched nerve in your lumbar.
When numbness and tingling in the back or extremities last longer than a few days or takes a dramatic turn for the worse, it’s time to contact an expert in spinal care.
The International Spine Institute
If you’re suffering from persistent pain and numbness from a spinal condition, surgery may hold the keys to relief. However, not every spine care center is created equal. The International Spine Institute is unique in our concierge approach to care. Rather than rushing you in and out of a consultation, we provide up to 45 minutes for you to get to know Dr. Marco Rodriguez and to get answers to all of your questions.
We work hard to put our patients first because we understand how frightening it can be to wait weeks for an appointment with a surgeon when you’re in pain. Our compassionate care extends to scheduling all the appointments you need and making sure you understand pricing and insurance. For those traveling to our Baton Rouge and New Orleans locations from across the country or around the world, we are happy to assist with travel arrangements.
If you are ready to seek out a surgical solution for your spinal condition, we invite you to contact us with all of your questions and concerns.