Slipped disc

A slipped disc can cause severe back pain due to a problem with one of the discs connecting the vertebrae in your spine. A slipped disc in the back is also known as a prolapsed disc or a herniated disc.

By Wallace Health I Medically reviewed by Adrian Roberts.
Page last reviewed: October 2018 I Next review due: October 2021

What is a slipped disc?

The vertebrae in your spine are linked together by discs, which contain soft, cushioning tissues. If there’s a weakness in a disc’s outer shell, tissues can bulge out, pushing against a spinal nerve. This can trigger severe back pain, often lower back pain.

Usually, the painful symptoms of a slipped disc will gradually improve over a few weeks. However, if the pain continues and is affecting your daily life, your GP may recommend treatment.

A slipped disc is more likely if you’re 30–50 years old, with men twice as likely to be affected. Factors which increase the risk of a slipped disc include:

  • Occupations involving lots of lifting or sitting
  • Weight-bearing sports such as weightlifting
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight
  • Being inactive

However, if you already have a weakness in one of your discs, even something as simple as a sneeze or awkward movement can cause a slipped disc.

How to tell if you have a slipped disc

If you have a slipped disc, the first sign is often sudden, severe back pain. Spinal stenosis can also be an indication of a slipped disc.

Other symptoms include:

  • Tingling and/or numbness in your shoulders, back, arms and hands
  • Neck pain
  • Back pain
  • Sciatica – pain, tingling and/or numbness in your buttocks, hips, legs and feet resulting from pressure on the nerve in your spine
  • Loss of muscle strength

There’s also a rare nerve condition which affects the base of the spinal cord called cauda equina syndrome. Contact your doctor immediately if you have lower back pain accompanied by any of the following symptoms:

  • Bowel or bladder problems
  • Numbness around the bottom of your spine
  • Weak leg muscles

Talk to your doctor if you’re concerned about symptoms

You can book an appointment with a Spire private GP today.

Diagnosis and tests for a slipped disc

After a month, if you still have severe back pain or sciatica, make an appointment to see your GP.

Following an examination, your GP may prescribe muscle relaxants, anti-inflammatory painkillers or a steroid injection. They may also suggest spine-strengthening exercises, physiotherapy or spinal manipulation.

If your symptoms are very severe, your GP may send you for an X-ray or MRI scan. This will reveal the location and severity of your slipped disc and will help rule out degenerative disc disease.

Common treatments for a slipped disc

Initially, you can help relieve the severe back pain caused by a slipped disc by:

  • Continuing as normal – don’t stop doing your usual activities unless it’s painful
  • Taking over-the-counter painkillers and anti-inflammatories
  • Alternating between applying ice packs and heated pads to your back
  • Gradually increasing your daily activity levels

If your symptoms continue for a month, contact your GP, who may recommend treatment or refer you to a consultant. Your consultant will discuss your options, including surgery, although this is usually only recommended for severe back pain.

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