Slipped disc diagnosis and treatment


Ruptured disc nucleus which can cause pinched nerves and back pain

What is a slipped disc?

A herniated or 'slipped' disc is when one of the discs separating our vertebrae ruptures. This happens when the disc starts to degenerate, causing the disc to bulge backwards and even split. This can press on the spinal cord or nerves, causing pain. In the past, this has been described as ‘Sciatica’, when it presses on nerves in the lower back and causes leg pain.

Need to know

What are the 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 are:

  • 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 – you may find that you do not have the same level of strength in your arms or legs, when suffering from a slipped disc

What are the possible causes of a slipped disc?

A slipped disc can occur for several different reasons. Your disc may become herniated due to an excessive strain or injury. You might also experience a slipped disc through the natural aging process and the bones in your back degenerating naturally, over time. This can also be exacerbated by the ligaments in your spine weakening as you age. General aging and degradation in this part of your body can make you more prone to a slipped disc. 

How is a slipped disc diagnosed?

A consultant will go through your medical history to check for contributing factors such as ageing, exercising too hard, 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 indications of the condition of your spine and will allow them to see exactly what is causing your symptoms.

Potential treatment options for a slipped disc

If your herniated disc becomes very painful and does not respond to non-operative treatment, you may need surgery. In most cases the disc is removed with a procedure called a discectomy (cervical , thoracic, or lumbar depending on the slipped disc’s location in the spine). In the lower back this is often all that is required but 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 is almost always accompanied by insertion of a cage or artificial disc replacement. In both the neck and lower back additional metalwork may need to be inserted to give greater stability. Please discuss these options with your surgeon to decide which is best for you.

How to prevent a slipped disc

While the natural ageing process might make you more likely to suffer from a slipped disc, there are some activities you can undertake to reduce the risk of suffering from this type of injury:

  • Make sure you pick up heavy objects the correct way, lifting with your legs and keeping a straight back
  • Managing the levels of exercise you undertake to prevent an injury from pushing yourself too hard
  • If you don’t exercise often, try to live a more active lifestyle and get your body moving to build strength and lose weight

Living with a slipped disc

The pain and discomfort that comes with a slipped disc diagnosis means many patients want immediate treatment to allow them to live a pain-free life. Once the problem has been identified, treatment can usually allow you to return to normal within a month or so.

If you continue to live with a slipped disc without undertaking surgical treatment, you can undertake self-care by limiting moment, taking pain relief medication, along with cold and heat therapies for the affected area. If, however, you experience loss of function in your arms or legs, loss of bladder control, severe pain whilst in bed, or weight loss, you should 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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