The spine consists of multiple bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other. In between each vertebra there are protective circular pads called discs that contain a softer gel-like substance. A slipped disc occurs when one of the discs is damaged and presses on the nerves.
There are a number of factors that can put increased pressure and strain on the spine such as bending awkwardly, jobs that involve heavy or awkward lifting, lots of sitting, particularly driving, being overweight or obese, weight bearing sports, such as weightlifting or traumatic injury to the back. Smoking also plays a role as it causes the discs to lose their natural flexibility. As we get older, our spinal discs start to lose their water content, making them less flexible and more likely to rupture. The damaged disc can put pressure on the whole spinal cord or on a single nerve.
Symptoms of a slipped disc
Most people with a slipped disc experience pain in the back that starts slowly and gets worse over time.
A slipped disc in the neck can cause:
numbness or a tingling sensation in the neck, shoulder, arm or hand
weakness in hand muscles
A slipped disc in the lower back can cause:
numbness or a tingling sensation in the back, buttocks, genitals, legs or feet
weakness in leg or foot muscles
The sciatic nerve runs from the back of the pelvis, through the buttocks and down the legs to the feet. If a slipped disc is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can lead to pain in the leg, hip or buttocks. This is known as sciatica.
Diagnosing a slipped disc
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans are effective in diagnosing the position and size of a slipped disc. They can pinpoint the affected nerves. A CT scan can also pinpoint a slipped disc, although it is often not as effective. X-rays are not generally used as a test to look for slipped discs as they only show the bones and do not give a view of the nerves and spinal cord.
Treatment of slipped disc
Treatment of a slipped disc usually involves a combination of physiotherapy and medication. Corticosteroid injections can also be given to the lower spine to help reduce pain and inflammation.
Surgery to release the compressed nerve and remove part of the slipped disc may be considered in severe cases, or in case the pain continues for longer than six weeks and there is progressive weakness in the muscles. The aim of surgery is to cut away the piece of the disc that bulges out. This is known as discectomy and it can be done in several ways e.g., microdiscectomy, endoscopic discectomy or artificial disc replacement. Post surgery, the patient may need to rest completely for the first couple of days to speed up the recovery and ensure that exercise is gentle and does not put a strain on the back. Swimming is an ideal form of exercise because the water supports the weight and puts very little strain on other joints.
Preventing a slipped disc
To avoid back pain and help prevent a slipped disc, one should keep onself mobile, exercise regularly, maintain good posture while sitting and standing, use safe techniques when lifting heavy objects, avoid sitting for a prolonged period of time and quit smoking.
Dr. Sumit Batra
Sr. Consultant Orthopedics & Joint Replacement
OPD Timings : Mon-Sat 10, 10 AM-5PM
QRG Health City, Sector 16, Faridabad