Health A to Z
A slipped disc means that one of the discs of cartilage in the spine is damaged and pressing on the nerves.
It's also known as a prolapsed or herniated disc.
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The spine, or backbone, is made up of 24 individual bones called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of each other.
In between each vertebra there are circular pads of connective tissue (cartilage) called discs. These discs have an inner gel-like substance and a tough outer case. They help maintain your back's flexibility and wide range of movement.
The spinal cord is a sensitive bundle of nerve fibres that passes through the middle of the spine. These nerve fibres connect all parts of the body to the brain.
The sciatic nerve is often affected in cases of slipped disc. It's the longest nerve in the body and runs from the back of the pelvis, through the buttocks, and down both legs to the feet.
If pressure is placed on the sciatic nerve (sciatica), it can cause mild to severe pain in the leg, hip or buttocks.
Not all slipped discs cause symptoms such as pain, weakness or tingling. Many people will go their whole life not knowing they have slipped a disc.
Read more about the symptoms of a slipped disc.
A slipped disc occurs when the circle of connective tissue surrounding the disc breaks down, allowing the soft, inner gel-like part of the disc to bulge out.
The damaged disc can put pressure on the whole spinal cord or on a single nerve root, where a nerve leaves the spinal cord.
This means a slipped disc can cause pain in the area of the protruding disc and also in the area of the body controlled by the nerve that the disc is pressing on.
It's not always clear what causes a disc to break down, but age is a common factor in many cases.
As you get older, your spinal discs start to lose their water content, making them less flexible and more likely to split (rupture).
Smoking can also be associated with a slipped disc because it causes the discs to lose their natural flexibility.
Other factors that can put increased pressure and strain on your spine include:
These situations can weaken the disc tissue and sometimes lead to a slipped disc.
Slipped discs are most common in people aged between 30 and 50. They affect twice as many men as women.
Slipped discs often occur in the lower back. Around a third of adults in the UK have lower back pain, but fewer than 1 in 20 people have a slipped disc.
Your GP will usually be able to diagnose a slipped disc from your symptoms and medical history.
They may also carry out a physical examination to test your:
Read more about how a slipped disc is diagnosed.
It can take about one to three months to recover from a slipped disc. Treatment usually involves a combination of physiotherapy, such as massage and exercise, and medication to relieve the pain.
Surgery to release the compressed nerve and remove part of the disc may be considered in severe cases, or if the pain doesn't settle down over time.
In many cases, a slipped disc will eventually shrink back away from the nerve and the pain will ease as the disc stops pressing on the affected nerve.
Sometimes the slipped disc will stay pressing on the nerve, but the pain goes away because the brain learns to "turn down the volume" on the pain messages coming from the nerve.
It's very important to keep active if you have a slipped disc. Moving may be difficult to start with, but you should start to move around after resting for a couple of days.
This will help keep your back mobile and stop the joints becoming stiff and the muscles that support the spine becoming weak. Keeping moving will speed up your recovery.
You should only exercise gently to ensure you don't put too much strain on your back. At first, avoid high-impact exercises, such as running, jumping or twisting, as they may cause the pain to flare up.
Read more about treating a slipped disc.
Taking a few sensible precautions, such as leading a healthy lifestyle, can help prevent back pain and lower your risk of getting a slipped disc.
For example, you should:
Read more about preventing a slipped disc.
Lower back pain is often the main symptom of a slipped disc.
The pain is caused by a disc pressing on a nerve, and is often worse when pressure is placed on the nerve. This can happen when you cough, sneeze or sit down.
The pain will usually settle down in one to three months, but in some cases it can last much longer and become chronic. There's also a risk of recurrence.
The symptoms can also vary depending on whether the slipped disc is in your neck or lower back.
A slipped disc in the neck can cause:
A slipped disc in the lower back can cause:
The sciatic nerve is the longest nerve in the body and is made up of several smaller nerves. It runs from the back of the pelvis, through the buttocks, and down the legs to the feet.
If a slipped disc is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can cause pain in the leg, hip or buttocks. This is called sciatica.
If the slipped disc presses on any of the other nerves that run down your spinal cord, your symptoms may include:
Muscle weakness or numbness and tingling may occur in your arm or leg depending on where the slipped disc is.
Cauda equina syndrome is a serious condition where the nerves at the very bottom of the spinal cord become compressed.
Seek immediate medical assistance if you develop these symptoms. Visit your GP or your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department.
If cauda equina syndrome isn't treated quickly, the nerves to your bladder and bowel can be permanently damaged.
Your GP will usually be able to diagnose a slipped disc from your symptoms and medical history.
You'll also have a physical examination, where your GP may test your:
While you're lying flat or sitting, your GP will slowly raise your legs one at a time to see if it causes any pain or discomfort in your legs.
The test stretches the nerves in your spine. If a disc is pressing on a nerve, this stretching can cause pain, numbness or tingling.
Your GP may test whether there's any pressure on a nerve in your neck by asking you to bend your head forward and to the sides while applying some pressure to the top of your head.
If this causes any pain or numbness to increase, it's likely that a slipped disc is putting pressure on a nerve in your neck.
In most cases, further tests aren't needed because the symptoms of a slipped disc usually settle down within one to three months.
But if your symptoms don't ease after three months, further tests may be recommended to help pinpoint the exact location of the slipped disc and assess how well the nerves are functioning.
Some of the tests you may have are described below.
In cases where there's uncertainty, a nerve conduction test may be used to help diagnose a slipped disc. It can also be used to measure how well the electrical signals are being transmitted through your nerves.
During the test, small metal discs called electrodes are placed on your skin. They release small electric shocks that stimulate your nerves, allowing the speed and strength of the nerve signal to be measured.
A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed images of the inside of your body.
MRI scans are effective at showing the position and size of a slipped disc. They can also pinpoint the affected nerves.
A computerised tomography (CT) scan uses a series of X-rays to scan parts of your body. A computer is used to build up detailed images of your body.
This produces cross-sectional images of your spinal column and the structures surrounding it. Like an MRI scan, a CT scan can pinpoint a slipped disc, although it's often not as effective.
Normal X-rays aren't usually used to investigate slipped discs because they only detect bone and don't give a view of the nerves and spinal cord.
In most cases, a slipped (prolapsed) disc will slowly improve with rest, gentle exercise and medication. Recovery can take between one and three months.
It's very important to keep active.
Initially, it may be difficult to move around. If you're in severe pain, you may need to rest at first, but try to keep this to a minimum because keeping moving is important in helping you recover faster.
Doing exercise is likely to help your back. It doesn’t matter what type of exercise you choose, the important thing is to keep moving and gradually increase your activity level.
You may find your pain increases at first when you start moving around.
This is normal and doesn't mean you're causing more damage. Remember: hurt doesn’t equal harm. The pain should settle down quite quickly, allowing you to gradually increase the amount of exercise you're doing.
You may be referred to a physiotherapist as part of your treatment programme.
Physiotherapists are qualified healthcare professionals who use a range of techniques, including massage and manipulation, to restore movement and function.
A physiotherapist will be able to draw up an individually tailored exercise plan for you. This will keep you active, minimise pain and help prevent any further damage to your back.
Read more about physiotherapy.
Some people choose to try osteopathy or see a chiropractor. Both types of therapy are used to treat back pain.
You may be prescribed a number of different medicines to help ease any painful symptoms of a slipped disc.
But NSAIDs aren't suitable for everyone, so check the box or leaflet to see whether you can take the medicine first. Speak to a pharmacist if you're not sure.
If you can't take NSAIDs, alternative medicines such as codeine (with or without paracetamol) may help for pain that has started recently. But this should only be used for a few days, as it can cause addiction if used for longer.
Paracetamol on its own isn't recommended for back pain.
Speak to your GP if over-the-counter medicines aren't helping.
If you have pain in your leg, hip or buttocks (sciatica), your doctor may prescribe a stronger painkiller.
These medications aren't suitable for everyone, particularly when used in the long term, so it's important to discuss all available options with your GP. Some of these medications can also cause significant side effects in some people.
Corticosteroids, often known as steroids, are an anti-inflammatory medicine.
They may be injected into your lower back (an epidural injection) to help reduce inflammation and pain if you have severe pain due to sciatica.
These injections may help relieve pain in the short term, but their effect tends to wear off over time.
You may be prescribed a muscle relaxant, such as diazepam, to take for a few days if your back or leg muscles are very tense.
Surgery isn’t usually needed, but it may be considered if:
The aim of surgery is to cut away the piece of the disc that bulges out to release the pressure on your spinal nerves. This is known as a discectomy and can be carried out in several ways.
Some of these procedures are explained in more detail below.
An open discectomy is a procedure to remove part of the disc that is pressing on a nerve. It's carried out under general anaesthetic, which means you'll be unconscious during the operation.
The surgeon will make a cut (incision) over the affected area of your spine down to the lamina, the bony arch of your vertebra.
They'll gently pull the nerve away to expose the prolapsed or bulging disc, and remove just enough to prevent pressure on the nerves.
To complete the operation, the surgeon will close the incision with stitches or surgical staples.
A microdiscectomy, also known as a minimally invasive discectomy, is where a discectomy is carried out through a smaller incision.
The surgeon uses a special microscope and small surgical instruments inserted through the incision to move the nerve away from the affected disc and remove a small piece of the disc.
This procedure is generally as effective as an open discectomy in the long-term, although the initial recovery phase may be quicker.
For most people, back surgery helps ease the pain in their leg, but it may not have any effect on back pain.
Depending on the procedure you've had and the type of work you do, you'll be able to return to work after two to eight weeks.
Possible complications resulting from surgery may include:
Before deciding to have surgery, ask your surgeon about their experience doing the surgery, and their success and complication rates.
They'll tell you whether you're at risk of developing complications and how long it will take to recover. You may be given a rehabilitation programme to follow.
To avoid back pain and help prevent a slipped disc, you should keep mobile, exercise regularly, maintain good posture and lift heavy objects correctly.
Read more about preventing back pain.
Regular exercise can slow down the age-related deterioration of the discs in your back. It can also help keep your supporting back muscles strong and supple.
Make sure you warm up and cool down properly before and after a workout or sports activity. If you're recovering from a slipped disc, avoid high-impact activities, such as running and aerobics.
Being overweight can put extra strain and pressure on your back, so maintaining a healthy weight will help ease the pressure.
You can use the healthy weight calculator to find out whether you're a healthy weight for your height.
It's very important that you use the correct technique when lifting.
When lifting heavy objects:
Read more about how to lift safely.
When sitting or driving for long periods, make sure your seat is comfortable and supportive. If possible, take regular breaks to stretch and walk around.
If your job involves using a computer, take regular breaks away from the computer screen. Make sure the computer screen is at eye level and directly in front of you so you don't have to twist or bend to see it.
Sit in a comfortable position with enough space to move around, and don't stay in the same position for too long.
Your employer should provide you with information and training about working with computers, including advice about the best way to sit and position your equipment.
Read more about how to sit correctly.
Always try to keep a good posture. Walk or stand with your head and shoulders slightly back.
When sitting at a desk, make sure your chair is the correct height for the desk. Your feet should be able to rest flat on the floor with your knees bent at 90 degrees.