If you have chronic back pain, chances are you have heard friends around you mention “slipped discs.” What exactly is a slipped disc? Does it mean there’s something in your spine that slipped out of place and needs to be returned via surgery? If you are like most people who have no medical knowledge about this situation, chances are you are already breaking out in a cold sweat wondering if you have this condition and worrying about needing to undergo surgery.
What is a slipped disc? The term is actually misleading, because nothing actually slips out of place. The discs are pads that absorb shock between the bones in your spine. What happens in a slipped disc scenario is that one of the discs in your spine may rupture or split, causing the gel inside to seep into the surrounding tissue. This can cause pressure on your spinal cord or on a single nerve fiber, which results in pain either around the problematic disc or anywhere in the area that the affected nerve controls. Other terms for this condition include a herniated, prolapsed, or ruptured disc.
According to studies, the most commonly affected area for slipped discs is the lower back. This is because this is the body part that typically receives the most stress day-to-day. But any disc can also degenerate, even those in the neck.
The main causes of a slipped disc include aging, which comes with degeneration and perhaps the loss of elasticity of the discs and the supporting structures around it. It may also be injured from improper lifting, especially when it happens with a turning or twisting. This is why it is very important to learn how to lift heavy loads properly: bending from the knees and not from the back. Excessive strain from physical activities can also sometimes cause slip discs. Lastly, it can come from a sudden forceful acute trauma.
The symptoms may vary, as the disc can affect nerves that affect someplace else. This is called “referred pain.” For slipped discs in the neck, you may feel tingling, numbness, pain, or weakness in the shoulder, arm, hand, or neck. For those in the lower back, you may feel numbness, weakness, pain or tingling in the back, buttocks, legs, or feet; pain running down the back of each leg; pain with straining, coughing, or movement such as leg raises; as well as loss of bladder or bowel control.
How do you know if you should consult a doctor? Generally, when you have back pain that actually winds up limiting your usual activities, or if you have back pain that lasts for more than a few days, you should see your doctor. Also, you should see if you find any numbness or weakness connected with the back pain, a loss of bowel or bladder control, chest or abdominal pain, and fever.
In terms of treatment, if the case is minor, your doctor will likely recommend you to have self-care in the home. Treatment usually includes application of hot or cold packs and limited activity. Sometimes, the doctor can prescribe bed rest, but strict bed rest is usually not recommended as patients who undergo normal activity minus lifting, straining or bending have been found to recover more quickly. Exercise, massage, and physical therapy can also be helpful. Basic pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. As the condition improves, your doctor may suggest back stretching and strengthening exercises. Be sure to check with your doctor before you go back to any stressful activity.
Surgery is usually only considered after other measures have proved futile, and usually only in those that have a high risk of permanent nerve damage. Usually, though, basic spine care and time can resolve symptoms of most slipped discs. Studies show that majority of cases resolve without any surgical intervention. Then again, symptoms can sometimes return, which points to the importance of long-term maintenance exercise programs to avoid another injury.
Generally, you can practice safe spine care by doing regular exercise and learning the proper techniques of lifting and other strenuous work, and you can see that you will not have anything to worry about in terms of back injury.