What’s a Slipped Disc and how can it be treated?

Writer Fisayomi Aturamu talks about having Slipped Discs – how do they happen and how are they treated?

Gymnast standing on one hand - how does a slipped disc happen?

What is a slipped disc?

The human spine is made up of mobile bones called vertebrae.

They not only provide support for the back but also enable us to move our bodies in different directions.

These vertebral bones are therefore mobile and are separated by discs that act as cushions between the vertebrae to prevent friction.

The discs have 2 parts: a gel-like centre called the nucleus and an outer ring called the annulus.

These discs are the shock absorbers of the spine.

In addition, there are two nerves; one on each side of every disc branching out to the body.


A slipped disc (also known as a herniated disc; or disc prolapse) occurs when the nucleus cracks or ruptures through a weak area in the outer ring, as a result of wear and tear, trauma or some other illnesses.

Mayfield clinic describes this scenario ‘as similar to the filling of a jam doughnut being squeezed out.’

When this occurs, the gel from the nucleus irritates the spinal nerves around the disc.

This results in inflammation and may manifest in symptoms such as

  • numbness or
  • tingling of the arms, legs or back and
  • weakness in the limb associated with the affected part of the spine; and
  • back pain. [1]

The more severe the damage to the disc, the more intense the symptoms.


What are the causes of a Slipped Disc?

  • Old age is a common risk factor for a slipped disc
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Certain occupations that involve engaging in physically intensive labor such as lifting heavy equipment frequently or engaging in repetitive movements that strain the spine
  •  Lack of exercise/sedentary lifestyle
  •  Inappropriate posture while exercising

What to do after getting a slipped disc?

The pain from a slipped disc may be resolved within a couple of weeks (up to 6 weeks).

It is important to speak to your health care provider if any of the symptoms develop, as medication, physical therapy or surgery may be recommended for treatment.


Medication

For mild pain symptoms, simple over-the-counter (OTC) medicines like Paracetamol, Ibuprofen can provide relief in the first instance.

If stronger pain relief is needed, then prescription-only opiate-based medicine such as Codeine can be used; and for nerve pain in particular drugs like Gabapentin, Pregabalin, Duloxetine, and Amitriptyline are effective.

Alternative medication options include:

Joint injections with steroids (Cortisone); which can be injected directly into the affected area to reduce inflammation; or

Epidural injections: this involves a procedure where a trained clinician injects medication into the space around the spinal cord called the epidural space.

The medications that can be used in epidural injections for pain relief include steroids, anaesthetics, or anti-inflammatory drugs.

In addition to pain relief, they can help reduce swelling and inflammation around the spinal nerve roots.

Another type of medication that can help to manage the symptoms associated with slipped discs are muscle relaxants – they reduce muscle spasms which can cause significant pain.


Other treatments

Physiotherapy and Surgery are other options for treating Slipped Discs.

With these treatment options, there are practical measures individuals with slipped discs could adopt to treat the pain such as:

  • Restricting physical activity avoiding strenuous exertion, but keeping the body supple with frequent stretching exercises where possible
  • Using cold/hot compress may help with pain management. [1]

What can I do to prevent getting a slipped disc?

  • Maintaining a healthy weight to avoid excess stress on the back
  • Keep a proper posture especially while lifting heavy items and exercising [2]
  • Taking note of changes in your body especially those associated with aging
  • Ensure you have adequate rest periods.

In conclusion, the pain and disability experienced from getting a slipped disc varies per individual and the diagnosis can only be confirmed by a doctor.

Investigations such as X-rays and more specialized scans such as MRI could be requested by the doctor to help reach a diagnosis.

Therefore, it is important to seek medical attention as soon as possible to avoid complications.

Always seek medical advice when back pain becomes more severe or you develop new symptoms.

These could include any form of dysfunction:

  • muscle weakness,
  • loss of bladder or bowel control
  • altered sensation like numbness or feeling of ‘no sensation’ in areas around the private parts.

Read more:

  1.  Mayfield Clinic, 2018. Herniated lumbar disc. [online] Available at: <https://mayfieldclinic.com/pe-hldisc.htm>
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