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Can a herniated disk cause dizziness and headaches?

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 5 minutes read

A slipped disk - sometimes called a herniated disk or ruptured disk - is a common medical condition that affects our spine. The spine is composed of vertebrae (our backbones) and between each pair of vertebrae is a rubbery disk that acts like a cushion or shock absorber to help prevent the vertebrae from rubbing on each other and being damaged or inflamed. These disks have a tough outer layer and a soft inner gel-like substance.

A herniated disk occurs when the inner core of the disk breaks through the outer layer and pushes into the spinal canal. This can irritate nearby nerves and cause a range of symptoms. In this article we look at whether a slipped or herniated disk can cause dizziness or headaches.

Can a slipped disk cause dizziness and headaches?

While a herniated disk itself primarily affects the spine and surrounding nerves, it is not typically a direct cause of dizziness and headaches. However, there are some situations where symptoms related to a herniated disk - such as pain or nerve pressure - might indirectly contribute to dizziness and headaches. These include:

Nerve compression

If a herniated disk in the cervical spine (the neck area) presses on nerves, it may lead to symptoms such as pain, numbness, and tingling in the arms. In some cases, nerve compression or irritation in the neck can also affect the nerves that control balance and head position, potentially contributing to dizziness or vertigo.

Pain and muscle tension

Severe pain from a herniated disk, especially in the neck, can lead to muscle tension and stiffness. Because muscles in the neck and upper back are closely connected to the head, increased muscle tension in them can cause tension headaches, which may be severe.

Referred pain

Pain from a herniated disk can sometimes be ‘referred’, or travel, to other areas. For instance, pain originating from the neck may radiate to the head, causing headaches, which may be severe.

Remember, though, that while these may trigger headaches or dizziness, there are many other potential causes for these symptoms. If you are experiencing persistent or severe headaches and dizziness, it is very important that you consult with your healthcare professional for a thorough evaluation. Other conditions, such as migraines, tension headaches, inner ear disorders, or issues unrelated to the spine, could be responsible for your symptoms. Always seek professional medical advice for a proper diagnosis and appropriate treatment based on your individual health condition.

How can headaches be managed?

There are a number of things you can do to help reduce or clear away headaches, including:

  • Drinking enough water. Dehydration can be a common cause of headaches so make sure you are drinking enough throughout the day.

  • Get some rest. If your headache is related to fatigue or lack of sleep, getting some rest or taking a short nap may help.

  • Managing your stress. Practicing stress-reducing techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, or yoga can all help to ease tension headaches. You can also use relaxation techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation or guided imagery to help ease any muscle tension.

  • Using warm or cold compresses. Some people find that applying these to the forehead or the back of the neck can give relief from headaches. Never apply ice directly onto the skin.

  • Taking over-the-counter painkillers. Non-prescription pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen may help relieve mild to moderate headaches. Always follow the recommended dosage, and if you have any health conditions or concerns, consult your healthcare professional before taking them (remember that if you have been taking high doses of painkillers regularly, there can be a small risk of your headaches getting worse when you stop them - these are known as ‘painkiller headaches’). You can purchase painkillers from our shop.

  • Going caffeine-free. Although in some people a small amount of caffeine can provide relief from headaches, excessive caffeine intake or sudden caffeine withdrawal can also trigger them.

  • Eating regular meals. Skipping meals can sometimes lead to low blood sugar levels, causing headaches. Make sure you eat regular, balanced meals to maintain stable blood sugar levels.

  • Avoiding any known headache triggers. If you can identify specific triggers for your headaches, try to avoid or minimize exposure to them - this may include certain foods or drinks.

  • Having a massage. Getting a gentle neck and shoulder massage from your partner or trained massage specialist can help to reduce or relieve tension headaches.

What are the causes and symptoms of a slipped disk?

A slipped disk occurs when the soft inner material of the disk pushes through the tough outer layer and protrudes into the spinal canal, where the spinal cord of nerves that affect all our body is. Common causes include age-related wear and tear, injury, being overweight, poor posture, smoking or any factor that puts stress on the spine. When the protruding disk puts pressure on nearby nerves, it can cause symptoms in the affected area and the severity of these can vary, depending on the location and extent of the slipped disk.

The most common location for a slipped disk is in the lower back (lumbar spine) or the neck (cervical spine). However, it can also occur in the mid-back (thoracic spine). The symptoms of a slipped disk vary depending on the location and severity of the condition. Common symptoms include:

  • Pain. The most usual symptom is pain, which can range from a dull ache to sharp, shooting pain which may radiate along the path of the affected nerve.

  • Numbness and tingling. Pressure on a nerve can lead to sensations of numbness, tingling, or weakness in the limbs. For example, a slipped disk in the lower back may cause symptoms in the legs and feet.

  • Muscle weakness. There may be weakness in the muscles served by the affected nerves, leading to difficulties in lifting or holding objects, or walking.

  • Reflex problems. Reflexes may be affected, and in severe cases there may be problems with bowel or bladder function.

Although most cases of a slipped disk will not cause symptoms of dizziness or headaches it is a possibility, especially if it occurs in the neck. Seeking prompt medical advice in order to get an accurate diagnosis is very important in such cases, including if you have symptoms of a slipped disk lower down in your back.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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