What is a slipped disc?
A slipped disc is when the soft part of the disc bulges through the circle of connective tissue. This prolapse may push on the spinal cord or on the nerve roots. However, it is worth noting that 20 per cent of the population have slipped discs without experiencing any noticeable symptoms.
The term 'slipped disc' does not really describe the process properly - the disc does not actually slip out of place, but bulges out towards the spinal cord.
What Is The Cause Of A Slipped Disc?
A slipped disc occurs due to the breaking down of the circle of connective tissue with advancing age. This causes a weakness allowing the soft part to swell.
Slipped discs most often affect the lower back and are relatively rare in the chest part of the spine.
It is possible that hard physical labour can increase the likelihood of a slipped disc. They are also occasionally seen following trauma such as an injury from a fall or a road traffic accident.
At What Age Can A Slipped Disc Occur ?
A slipped disc in the lower back is most often seen between the ages of 30 and 50. In the cervical vertebrae around the neck, slipped discs are most often seen between the ages of 40 and 60.
What Are The Symptoms Of A Slipped Disc ?
The nerves of the body exit the spine at each spinal level. A herniated disc can therefore produce symptoms anywhere along the course of that nerve, though the injury and irritation of the nerve are at the spine itself (this is known as referred pain). A slipped disc can produce varying degrees of pain in the back or neck along with numbness or weakness.
- For slipped discs in the neck - Numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain in the shoulder, neck, arm, or hand.
- For slipped discs in the lower back.
- Numbness, tingling, weakness, or pain in the buttocks, back, legs, or feet.
- Numbness and tingling around the anus or genitals.
- Pain down the back of each leg from the buttocks to the knee (this is called sciatica).
- Pain with movement, straining, coughing, or doing leg raises.
- Difficulty controlling bowel movements or bladder function.
How Is A Slipped Disc Treated ?
It is generally agreed that a slipped disc should be treated conservatively, with surgery being considered only when other approaches to treatment have failed.
The treatment will typically mean a brief period of bed-rest with appropriate painkillers. Physiotherapy or chiropractic treatment should also be explored.
When To Seek Medical Care ?
You should consult with your doctor for any back pain significant enough to limit activity, any back pain that lasts more than a few days, or any back pain associated with numbness or weakness, loss of bladder or bowel control, fever, or abdominal or chest pain. The doctor may suggest an urgent office evaluation or may advise you to go to the hospital's emergency department for evaluation.
Any injury that may suggest more significant back or neck problems, such as a fall from a height or a direct blow to the spine, should be evaluated at the hospital's emergency department. Consider calling 911 for an ambulance. Medical teams can immobilize the spine and protect against further damage.
You should also seek emergency evaluation if the pain or symptoms are severe enough to prevent you from walking, are associated with severe numbness or weakness of any extremity, are associated with loss of bowel or bladder control, or are associated symptoms not readily explained by the spine problem (such as fever, abdominal pain, or chest pain).
Slipped Disc Treatment
Self-Care at Home
Minor cases can be handled at home in consultation with your doctor. Treatment will likely include application of hot or cold packs, limited activity (although strict bed rest is not generally advised), and basic pain relievers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin). As your condition improves, specific back stretching or strengthening exercises may be suggested.
The doctor often prescribes bed rest or limited activity for several days followed by gradual increase in activity over the next few weeks. Strict bed rest is generally no longer advised because people with back pain have been shown to recover more quickly with normal activity as long as lifting, bending, and strain are limited.
Treat with ice or cold packs early after an injury and switch to heat later. Heat may be used early if the pain and symptoms are not caused by a sudden injury.
Physical therapy, exercise, and massage can be helpful if indicated (always check with your doctor before resuming any stressful activity).
If these measures are not successful within a reasonable time and the tests confirm a herniated disc as the source of symptoms, surgery may be considered. Except in extreme cases or in those that have a high potential for permanent nerve damage, surgery is no longer considered early in a case. Often, time and basic spine care resolve most cases. Several surgical options exist. Your doctor will refer you to a spine specialist to discuss which option is best for you and what the likelihood of success will be.
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