Slipped Disc Diagnosis and Treatment


A ruptured disc nucleus which can lead to pinched nerves and severe back pain

What is a slipped disc?

A herniated or 'slipped' disc occurs when one of the discs separating your vertebrae ruptures. This can happen when the disc starts to degenerate, causing the disc to bulge backwards and even split. This can, in turn, press on the spinal cord or nerves, often causing severe pain.

When the pressure falls on nerves in the lower back, causing leg pain, this is commonly referred to as sciatica.

Need to know

Symptoms of a slipped disc

Not every herniated disc causes symptoms. In fact, many people discover they have a herniated disc after having an MRI scan for an unrelated reason. Most herniated discs occur in your lower back (lumbar spine), although they can also occur in your neck (cervical spine) and middle back (thoracic spine). Symptoms of a herniated disc include:

  • Arm or leg pain: Herniated discs in your lower back produce pain in your buttocks, thigh and calf. Herniated discs in the neck produce pain down the shoulder and arm.
  • Numbness or tingling: This sensation can sometimes be felt down one side of your body and can come in conjunction with the pain symptoms described above.
  • Weakness in the area served by the affected nerve: When suffering from a slipped disc, you may find you don’t have the same level of strength in your arms or legs

What are the possible causes of a slipped disc?

A slipped, or herniated, disc can occur for several different reasons. These include:

  • Excessive strain or injury
  • The bones in your spine degenerating naturally over time
  • The weakening of ligaments in your spine as you age

How is a slipped disc diagnosed?

A consultant will go through your medical history to check for contributing factors such as ageing, exercising beyond your current capacity, smoking, obesity and heavy lifting.

They will also conduct a physical examination and may recommend you have an MRI scan. This will give your doctor the clearest possible indication of the condition of your spine, and allow them to see the cause of your symptoms.

Potential treatment options for a slipped disc

If your herniated disc becomes very painful and doesn’t respond to non-operative treatment, you may need surgery.

In most cases the disc is removed by a procedure called a discectomy. If the affected disc is in the lower back, this is often all that’s required. However, in certain cases, your surgeon may decide to replace the disc with a cage, which will fuse with the vertebrae over time.

When a discectomy is performed in the neck, it’s almost always accompanied by insertion of either a cage or an artificial disc replacement. In both the neck and lower back, you may need to have additional metalwork inserted to give you greater stability.

Your consultant will discuss all the options with you to decide which is best for you.

How to prevent a slipped disc

While the natural ageing process might increase the chances of a slipped disc, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of suffering this type of injury:

  • When picking up heavy objects, lift with your legs and keep a straight back
  • Don’t push yourself too hard when exercising
  • If you don’t exercise regularly, becoming more active and getting your body moving, will help prevent injury through building strength and maintaining a healthy weight

Living with a slipped disc

The severe discomfort that often accompanies a slipped disc, means many patients want immediate treatment to relieve the pain. Once the problem has been identified, treatment can usually allow you to return to normal activity within a month or so.

If surgical treatment isn’t an immediate option, there are steps you can take to minimize the impact of a slipped disc. These include:

  • Managing your short-term activity levels, allowing yourself to be led by your symptoms and level of pain
  • Taking pain relief medication
  • Using heat and cold therapies on the affected area

Should you experience loss of function in your arms or legs, loss of bladder control, severe pain while in bed, or unexpected weight loss, contact a health professional immediately.

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This content is intended for general information only and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional.
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