What is a Slipped Disc?

By Barbara Hales, M.D.
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Woman with a slipped disc

A “slipped disc” is actually a state where parts of an injured, abnormal or degenerated disc protrude out against surrounding nerve tissues. Other names for this condition besides slipped disc include herniated disc, ruptured disc or prolapsed disc. The lower back is most often affected by this problem.

The discs themselves are shock absorbing defensive pads between spinal (vertebral) bones. While they don’t sip, a disc can rupture, split or bulge causing the disc cartilage and surrounding tissue to herniate. The inner gel part escapes into adjacent tissue. The bulging, jelly-like matter places pressure on the spinal cord or an individual nerve causing pain, numbness or weakness anywhere along the region supplied by the affected nerve.

What should I expect with a slipped disc?

A slipped disc can cause pain in the back along with weakness, tingling or numbness in the corresponding areas that are innervated by the nerve root. This includes Sciatica, which is pain down the back of each leg from the buttocks to the knee from the sciatic nerve in the lower back. Numbness, tingling, weakness or pain in the lower limbs is part of this. Additionally one may experience a weakness in bowel and bladder control or pain from movement and coughing.

What are the Risks and Causes of a Slipped Disc?

Risk factors and causes of slipped discs include:

  • Sudden twisting or turning
  • Excessive strain from certain actions
  • Inappropriate lifting injuries
  • Trauma
  • Aging with degeneration and loss of disc elasticity

What are the treatment options for a slipped disc?

Conservative treatment, which can be done at home, include:

  • Applying hot or cold packs*
  • Rest (but not prolonged bed rest)
  • Avoidance of activity that aggravates the condition (i.e. lifting, bending, straining)
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers
  • Back Stretching exercises
  • Strengthening back muscle exercises
  • Medical massage by a professional
  • Comfortable mattress cover

*Treatment with ice or cold packs are advised initially after an injury and changed to heat packs later.

Medication Therapy

The following drugs may be recommended for a slipped disc:

  • Muscle relaxants to alleviate spasms and tightness (cyclobenzaprine, diazepam)
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, acetaminophen)
  • Steroids to diminish inflammation and swelling (corticosteroids)
  • Pain relief (narcotics can be used for a short time, initially)
  • Drugs that target Nerve pain (gabapentin, pregabalin or tramadol) to relieve the pain.