A slipped disc, also known as a ‘herniated disc’ or ‘disc prolapse’, occurs when a disc between the bones of the spine (the vertebrae) becomes damaged causing it to press on the nerves.
Spinal discs are the shock absorbers between the vertebrae. Sometimes a disc can become dislodged under pressure and squeeze out through a tear in the disc capsule, leaving the prolapsed fragment to compress on nearby nerve roots or even the spinal cord.
A slipped disc can cause back pain and neck pain, as well as other symptoms such as numbness, weakness and tingling sensations in other areas of the body.
The sciatic nerve is most commonly affected by a slipped disc. Running from the back of the pelvis, through the buttocks and down the legs to the feet, the sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body. When pressure is applied to the sciatic nerve (sciatica), patients will start to experience severe pain in the leg, hip or buttocks.
Some slipped discs can be asymptomatic, meaning some people will go their whole life without knowing they have one.
What are discs?
The spine is made up of 24 individual bones called vertebrae that are piled on top of one another. In between each vertebra lie the discs; protective pads of cartilage (connective tissue) that have a tough, fibrous case containing a softer gel-like substance.
Discs are important as they help maintain your back’s flexibility, supporting a wide range of movement.
What causes a slipped disc?
A slipped disc occurs when the outer casing of the disc splits, causing the gel inside the disc to protrude, leaving the damaged disc putting pressure on the spinal cord or on a single nerve root (nerves that leave the spinal cord).
A slipped disc can therefore cause pain to both the area of the protruding disc as well as the area of the body the nerve that is being pressed on controls.
The causes of a slipped disc are unclear, although age is often a common factor. As you get older, discs will start to lose their water content, making them less flexible and more prone to rupture.
Smoking is also thought to cause discs to lose their natural flexibility resulting in their gradual breakdown.
Treating a slipped disc
In most cases, a slipped disc will eventually shrink back away from the nerve, easing the pain as the disc ceases to press on the affected nerve. The recovery time for a slipped disc is between 4-6 weeks, and treatment will usually involve a combination of physiotherapy and medication.
In more severe cases where pain continues to be experienced for longer than 6 weeks, microdiscectomy surgery may be required to release the compressed nerve and remove part of the disc.
Staying active is particularly important for sufferers of slipped discs, as keeping your back mobile will help prevent the joints becoming stiff and the muscles that support the spine weakening. Although moving may be difficult initially, resting for a couple of days should enable you to start moving again.
Any exercise that you undertake should be gentle and not put too much strain on your back. High impact exercise such as running, twisting, jumping or lifting should be avoided at first as they could cause the pain to flare-up again.