Ask the expert

Is the numbness in my upper back due to a herniated disc?

I have a numbness in my upper back approximately the size of a tennis ball. It’s located around my shoulder blade, next to my spine on my left side. I have had this for a good while but I am now experiencing numbness and sometimes pain in the fingers of my left hand, mainly the little and the next one in. I have also noticed when laying on my back at night that both arms are numb sometimes (don't know if this is related). Occasionally when I tilt my head down I feel light headed? I suspect a herniated disc but I am struggling to get in to see the NHS Doctor. I have tried massage which doesn't seem to help.

31 January 2019

Thank you for your question. From the symptoms you’re describing it does seem likely that there’s either a problem with one of the discs in your neck (the cervical spine), or one or more of the muscles in the upper back and spine. When a disc in the neck prolapses there is more usually quite severe pain that travels into the arms, as well as a reduction of movement in the neck. It is possible than rather than be fully prolapsed or slipped, one of the discs may be tipping and pressing onto the surrounding nerve roots, which is causing the numbness and tingling you’re feeling in your arm and also when lying flat.

It’s also possible that you have an issue with either the trapezius or scapula muscles in your back. When a muscle is inflamed or goes into spasm it can also cause pressure on the nerves surrounding it and this could be causing the numbness you have in your upper back and the tingling in your arms. Problems with these muscles can also cause the neck muscles to tighten and pinch on nerves, which can contribute to the light headedness you feel when putting your head down. The good news is whatever the cause, it’s usually very treatable. You can find out more about the types of problems that can arise in the neck area and their treatments in this NHS factsheet on Neck pain.

Clearly you would benefit from seeing your doctor and hopefully you’ll be able to arrange an appointment soon to do so. If you’re an AXA Health member you may also like to speak to your claims team about our Working Body service, which you can self-refer to. This will give you access to a physiotherapist, who’ll be able to carry out a thorough telephone assessment of your condition, identify the cause where possible and suggest – and arrange – any treatment that you may need.

If you continue to have difficulty seeing your GP then it might be sensible to attend a walk in centre instead, where you’ll be able to see a medical practitioner who’ll conduct an initial assessment of your symptoms and arrange for any initial treatment you need. You can find details of your nearest urgent care and walk in centres at NHS home.

We do hope you will find this information helpful and best of luck in getting this resolved.

Answered by the Health at Hand team

Sources and further reading

Back conditions – AXA Health
Head, neck and back pain – AXA Health
Back pain expert Q&A – AXA Health
Neck pain – NHS factsheet

Useful resources

Musculoskeletal centre – AXA Health
Find NHS walk in centre services – NHS home
Working Body service – AXA Health

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