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What is a Slipped Disc?

By Koren Allen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Slipped disc is a term that is used loosely to describe an abnormal condition in which a spinal disc is under pressure between two vertebrae. It is also referred to as a herniated disc, bulging disc, compressed disc, and prolapsed disc. A slipped disc usually causes pain that can range from mild to severe. Depending on where the rupture is located, it can also cause numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, and in severe cases, a slipped disc can interfere with bowel and bladder function, creating a life-threatening emergency.

The spinal column is made up of flat bones called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of one another, with the ability to move independently, giving the back its characteristic flexibility. Between the vertebrae, the discs are doughnut-shaped cushions with a hard outer shell made of cartilage, and a spongy, gel-like filling that absorbs shocks from running, jumping, or other jarring motions. When the disk suffers too much pressure from the vertebrae above and below it, the outer casing can become damaged, allowing the gel filling to leak into the surrounding body cavities. When this material presses on spinal nerves, it can cause pain, loss of feeling, and loss of function to other parts of the body.

A disc can become damaged in several ways. A slipped disc can result from a severe trauma, such as an auto accident or a sports injury. Scoliosis can place excessive pressure on the discs, and severe obesity can also put more pressure on the disks than they were designed to handle. Degenerative disk disease, a normal process of aging, causes the discs to shrink and become brittle, making them more susceptible to injury.

A slipped disc or ruptured disc is most commonly diagnosed by a physician using x-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI scan. Since the disc is made of soft tissue, it does not appear on a standard x-ray; however, a physician can observe and measure the spaces between the vertebrae to determine if more testing is required. CT and MRI scans allow the physician to view the soft tissues to determine the exact location of the slipped disc, as well as the amount and location of any disc material that has escaped from the disc.

Treatment for a slipped disc varies depending on the cause and severity of the injury. The goal of any treatment is to reduce the pressure on the injured disc. Conservative approaches may include physical therapy, massage, anti-inflammatory medications, and diet and exercise changes if obesity is the main cause. Scoliosis may be treated with a back brace. In cases where the injury is life-threatening, or the pain has not been relieved by more conservative approaches, surgery may be necessary to remove the ruptured material and to stabilize the vertebrae around it. You should discuss with your doctor what treatment plan is right for your situation.

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