What actually happens when you have a herniated disc, or a ruptured disc, will depend on the size of the herniation you have and exactly where it is at.
A disc herniation occurrs when there is a crack or a break in the annulus and the soft nucleus pulposis is forced out of the disc. The annulus is full of nerve ending and when it is damaged you will begin to experience back pain.
When the nerves are being squeezed by a piece of disc that is pushed into the spinal canal there can be problems.
Exactly what happens will depend on which nerve is being squeezed and how much it is being squeezed and for how long it is being squeezed.
Nerve pain sensations may vary.
This nerve pain or neuropathic pain may have a burning cold sort of feeling.
It may be an electrical sensation like when you hit your funny bone.
A Lightning Bolt
It may cause pain that is like a lightning bolt and lasts for only a split second.
"Like a Toothache"
Some people will describe it as a "toothache" kind of pain.
This MRI image demonstrates herniated disc.
Image thanks to Tonbi Ko, via Wikimedia Commons
Pain Wherever that Nerve Goes
Most commonly, pressure on the nerves will cause pain into the area that nerve serves. Pushing on a nerve in your neck may cause pain shooting into your arm and down into your hand.
Pressure on a nerve in your thoracic spine may cause pain that radiates around your chest. Squeezing a nerve in your low back can cause pain running through your buttocks and thighs.
A herniated disc in your lumbar spine may cause sciatica or sciatic nerve pain. This is pain that radiates into one or both buttocks and the back of your thighs.
Your sciatic pain may be worse with standing or walking. Sitting may give you quick relief. This is because standing up closes down the space for the nerves and sitting down opens up the space for the nerves.
May Develop Gradually or Suddenly
Your herniated disc symptoms may develop gradually over many months or they may develop suddenly after a particularly strenuous activity such as heavy lifting, a motor vehicle accident, or sporting activity.
When they develop gradually the first thing you may notice is that you're walking more bent forward. You may not even realize that you are doing it until someone points it out or asks you about it.
Then you may realize that standing up straight causes increased pain radiating into your buttocks and thighs.
Upper Extremity Pain
People are usually more aware of the pain radiating into their arms, forearms, and hands. Often they will notice that the pain is better or worse with certain positions of their head.
Such as, tilting your head to the right may increase the pain radiating into your right arm because it closes down the space for the nerves where they come out of your neck.
Turn the Pain Off and On
Tipping your head to the opposite side may reduce the pain because it opens up the space for the nerves.
Exactly what you feel and where you feel it is very variable. It just all depends on exactly which nerve, how much, and for how long it is being squeezed.