The pain is often severe, and usually comes on suddenly. The pain is usually eased by lying down flat, and is often made worse if you move your back, cough, or sneeze.
Nerve root pain (usually sciatia)
Nerve root pain is pain that occurs because a nerve coming from the spinal cord is pressed on (trapped) by a prolapsed disc, or is irritated by the inflammation cause by the prolapsed disc. Although the problem is in the back, you feel pain along the course of the nerve in addition to back pain. Therefore, you may feel pain down a leg to the calf or foot. Nerve root pain can range from mild to severe, but it is often worse than the back pain. With a prolapsed disc, the sciatic nerve is the most commonly affected nerve. (The term sciatica means nerve root pain of the sciatic nerve). The sciatic nerve is a large nerve that is made up from several smaller nerves that come out from the spinal cord in the lower back. It travels deep inside the buttock and down the back of the leg. There is a sciatic nerve for each leg.
Other nerve root symptoms
The irritation or pressure on the nerve next to the spine may also cause pins and needles, numbness or weakness in part of a buttock, leg or foot. The exact site and type of symptoms depends in which nerve is affected.
Cauda equine syndrome - rare, but an emergency
Cauda equine syndrome is a particularly serious type of nerve root problem that can be caused by a prolapsed disc. This is a rare disorder where the nerves at the very bottom of the spinal cord are pressed on. This syndrome can cause low back pain plus: problems with bowel and bladder function (usually unable to pass urine), numbness in the saddle area (around the anus), and weakness in one or both legs. This syndrome needs urgent treatment to preserve the nerves to the bladder and bowel from becoming permanently damaged. See a doctor immediately if you develop these symptoms.
Some people do not have symptoms
Research studies where routine back scans have been done on a large number of people have a prolonged disc without any symptoms. It is thought that symptoms mainly occur if the prolapse causes pressure or irritation of a nerve. This does not happen in all cases. Some prolapses may be small, or occur away from the nerves and cause minor, or no symptoms.