Slipped disc

Discs are segments of connective tissue that separate the vertebrae of the spine, providing absorption from shock and allowing for the smooth flexing of the neck and back without the vertebral bones rubbing against each other.

A slipped disc (also known as a herniated, ruptured or prolapsed disc) results when the shock-absorbing pads or intervertebral discs split or rupture. The discs contain a jelly-like substance which seeps out into the surrounding tissue, causing local inflammation and pressure on the spinal nerves (and occasionally the spinal cord) where they exit the spinal canal. Slipped discs most frequently occur in the lower back although any disc of the spine is vulnerable to rupture.

Cause of injury

Improper weightlifting technique. Excessive strain. Forceful trauma to the vertebral disc.

Signs and symptoms

Pain in the back or neck. Numbness, tingling or pain in the buttocks, back, upper or lower limb. Changes in bowel or bladder function (this is rare but should be treated as a medical emergency).

Complications if left unattended

Slipped or herniated discs require medical attention and evaluation. Symptoms of slipped disc may indicate other underlying ailments including fracture, tumours, infection or nerve damage, with serious – in certain cases, life-threatening – implications.

Immediate treatment

Bed rest, application of alternating ice and heat. Use of anti-inflammatory and analgesic medication.

Rehabilitation and prevention

Rest and limited activity for several days is usually indicated, though normal, non-athletic daily activity should be resumed soon thereafter to prevent atrophy and restore mobility in the spine. Physical therapy may be combined with massage and gradually increasing exercise of the back after the pain has subsided. Strengthening and flexibility exercises, proper warm-up, avoidance of excessive or sudden weight lifting and attention to good sports technique may help avoid the injury.

Long-term prognosis

Most disc injuries are resolved without surgery, given proper recovery time. Though full restoration of strength and mobility may generally be expected, discs are vulnerable to re-injury, particularly for weightlifters and athletes placing significant demands on the back muscles, tendons and ligaments and on the spine itself.

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