How serious is a slipped disc?

A slipped disc is also called a herniated or prolapsed disc – and it can cause a lot of pain. Discs themselves are soft cushions of tissue between each vertebrae. The jelly-like centre (nucleus) of each disc is soft, but enveloped by a tougher substance called the annulus. Their job is to be shock absorbers. If some of that nucleus gets pushed out through a tear in the annulus, it can press against the sciatic nerve and cause pain radiating down the left leg and into the foot. Other symptoms include numbness, pins and needles and weakness. You may even find that your foot drags as you walk due to pressure on the sciatic nerve. Not all slipped discs cause symptoms though – some people aren’t even aware that they have a problem. About 40% of people have a disc bulge and no pain.

What causes a slipped disc?

In most cases, the process of wear and tear on your discs is what makes them vulnerable to rupture. This is called ‘disc degeneration’ and is part of the ageing process. The discs lose some of their water content as we age, which makes them more prone to protruding or bulging. Other causes might be twisting and lifting heavy objects, while weak muscles caused by a sedentary lifestyle will fail to support the joints of your back. Being overweight at any age adds strain to the body and the discs are then strained by having to support additional weight.

Other treatment options for a slipped disc may include:

Pain medication: Over-the-counter pain killers or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), can help reduce pain and inflammation.

Physiotherapy: Our physio can design a customised exercise program to help improve strength, flexibility, and range of motion in the affected area.

Spinal injections: Steroid injections into the affected area can help reduce inflammation and relieve pain but NICE does not recommend them due to lack of evidence of effectiveness.

Surgery: In severe cases, surgery may be necessary to remove the damaged disc and stabilise the spine.

Do discs get better on their own?

It is possible to improve without any physical interventions and most people feel better after about six weeks. On the other hand, an untreated severe slipped disc can lead to permanent nerve damage. In rare cases, the bulge can cut off nerve impulses to the cauda equina nerves in the lower back and legs, which can then affect bowel and bladder control. In other cases, compression of nerves by the slipped disc can cause a loss of sensation in the inner thighs, the back of the legs and round the rectum. It’s better to get yourself checked out. 

If you’re worried about a slipped disc, come and see us for a check-up

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