Slipped a disc in your back? What does this mean and what to do about it?

slipped disc back pain

What is a “Slipped Disc”?

The term “slipped disc” is a misleading way of describing an injury or change to the disc that lay between the bones for your spine.

People will use terms like “slipped disc” or “bulging disc” commonly to describe a disc prolapse (herniation). The term “slipped disc” is misleading because it implies there has been a major structural change to the orientation of the joints in your spine which is incorrect. Unfortunately, you might hear this term commonly and even from medical professionals, but this is a saying of habit and not technically correct, so be careful what you understand!

Some disc changes can cause irritation of the spinal joints and impact on nerve structures. If you have back pain with any new symptoms of pain, plus pins and needles, numbness, and reduction in sensation or strength in your arms or legs it is important you seek help form your doctor or trusted physiotherapist.   

How do I know if I have a “Slipped Disc”?

It is not easy to tell if you have incurred a change in disc structure, as “slipped discs” or prolapsed discs do not always cause pain. Having a therapist you trust to assess your injury is the best way to find out what is the source of your pain as back pain is often related to many other tissues like muscles and it’s important to understand and make an educated plan for treatment.

What causes a “Slipped Disc”? 

Disc changes can happen normally with movement and lived experience. New or abrupt disc changes can happen in a movement that is sudden or outside your usual movements, such as a car accident, falling from a height or starting a new repetitive movement outside your usual activity, like starting a new sport. It can hurt instantly after the movement, or take a little while to feel the pain after you have had a moment to recover from the incident/ activity.

How does a “Slipped Disc” heal?

A disc prolapse (herniation) can take up to 12 months to heal, depending on the size of the change. Interestingly and importantly the larger the disc bulge or extrusion, the faster the healing. Another important factor is that you may not necessarily experience pain throughout the entire healing process. In fact, you can have full resumption of back function with a disc prolapse still present. The good news is that this process can be accelerated with specific loading programs to reduce pain and promote strongly healed discs. This process is different for everyone and it’s important to have regular assessment and guidance from your treating practitioner throughout your recovery.

How can you reduce pain from a “Slipped Disc” and regain previous strength?

To heal and return to your previous strength the fastest, specific loading exercises should be completed as soon as possible after injury. Depending on how much pain you are experiencing, different levels of loading exercises should be applied. Having a therapist, you trust to assess your injury and provide you with a specific plan is important to offer you the specific advice you will need for your specific injury.

Do I need surgery to heal a “Slipped Disc”?

In a small amount of cases with a combination of severe back pain, plus:

  • pins and needles in the legs
  • numbness in the groin and the legs
  • reduction in sensation in your legs
  • reduction of strength in your legs
  • new incontinence of bladder or bowels
  • sensory abnormalities in the bladder or rectum
  • recent onset of sexual dysfunction
  • loss of reflexes in the extremities

MAY indicate the need for surgery, so seeking medical help is important.

IMPORTANT NOTE: In a majority of cases discs will heal naturally and conservative management with physiotherapy will be recommended for at least 2 months before considering surgery. Surgery is also not recommended beyond 12 months after injury.

How do you prevent a “Slipped Disc”?

If you’re going to start moving again at a higher level, like playing a sport or want to achieve an activity goal e.g. Running a marathon, then having a graduated training/ exercise plan to get there will not only prevent injury by increasing the disc tissues strength, it will help you achieve your goal.

There is no 100 % guaranteed way of stopping a “slipped disc”, “disc bulge” or disc herniation, but you can focus your energy on reducing your risk of injury.

Preventative training, or ‘prehab’, is common place in many professional sporting leagues and has been shown to prevent the occurrence of a pulling a hamstring by up to 50%. This knowledge has been applied to other areas of the body to prevent injury.

Can Discs in your back get stronger?
With specific loading with exercise the tissue structure of your discs can become stronger just like muscles, tendons, and ligaments.

Written by:
Ryan Michell,
Physiotherapist,
Proactive Health & Movement

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