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Slipped disc overview

A slipped disc is another term for a bulging or herniated disc that developed its name from the idea that a disc in the spine has “slipped” out of alignment. The actual description of a slipped disc is a spinal disc that is bulging or has herniated into the spinal canal, often due to constant compression and pressure from the surrounding vertebrae.

While other causes, such as injury or trauma, can create a slipped disc, the most common cause is the natural degeneration process of the spine with age. Because of the degenerative nature of this condition, the symptoms of a slipped disc often develop slowly as the damage to the disc worsens over time. For this reason, it is important to visit a doctor at the first sign of slipped disc symptoms so you can receive a proper diagnosis of your condition and begin a series of treatments for pain relief.

Causes of a slipped disc

A slipped disc is often caused by the natural weakening of the spine with age — a process called spinal degeneration.

As the spine ages, the components of the spine begin to wear down and weaken. This is especially true of the highly functional spinal discs which support the movements of the vertebrae and absorb the shock of everyday movements on the spine. Because of their role within the spine, spinal discs are under continual stress and pressure. This pressure worsens as age causes the discs to weaken and dehydrate, and weight gain adds pressure from the surrounding vertebrae.

While these changes are typical in the aging process, they can negatively impact the integrity of the spinal discs. The tough, elastic outer layer of the disc that allows its flexibility may begin to stretch and weaken under the pressure of daily movements and weight gain. As this happens, the disc’s nucleus continues to press into the outer walls, eventually causing the disc to bulge to one side (or sometimes both sides, in severe cases). A bulging disc is the first part of the damaged disc process.

If a bulging disc worsens, the pressure on the disc’s outer wall can cause it to tear open and leak the nucleus material into the spinal canal. This is called a herniated disc or a slipped disc, because the disc material herniates or “slips” out of its natural alignment in the spine.

When this happens, the damaged disc material can compress a nearby nerve root and cause painful symptoms to develop.

Symptoms of a slipped disc

The symptoms of a slipped disc are similar to the symptoms of many other degenerative spine conditions, because the symptoms develop from the associated pinched nerve. When a slipped disc presses against a nerve root, the following symptoms can occur:

  • Pain
  • Muscle weakness
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Muscle spasms

These symptoms can spread along the nerve’s pathway, reaching other associated areas of the body. For example, a slipped disc in the neck can cause symptoms to develop in the neck, head, shoulder, arm and hand, if severe nerve compression develops.

These symptoms indicate that you should schedule an appointment with your doctor who can diagnose the cause of your pain and recommend the best treatment options for your needs.

Diagnosing a slipped disc

A slipped disc diagnosis can be made after two types of tests are performed: a physical examination and a medical imaging test.

The physical examination consists of your doctor pressing into different areas along your spine and the compressed nerve pathway. The purpose of this is to determine the starting location of the pinched nerve and to measure the reach of the peripheral nerve symptoms — the symptoms that spread into other areas of the body like the arms or legs.

Once your doctor determines the starting location of the pinched nerve, he or she can order a medical imaging test to see what spine condition has caused the nerve compression. Typically, the imaging test will be an MRI or CT scan, both of which allow your doctor to view the anatomy of your spine and diagnose the condition responsible for your nerve compression and pain.

Finding the right treatment for a slipped disc

After your doctor diagnosis you with a slipped disc, you can begin to discuss the different treatment available to you. Many patients are able to find relief from this condition through a series of conservative treatments, which can consist of any of the following options:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Weight loss
  • Lifestyle changes
  • Stretches
  • Yoga
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Hot/cold compresses
  • Corticosteroid injections

If these treatments are ineffective at relieving your pain after several months, your doctor may recommend spine surgery.

At Laser Spine Institute, we have helped more than 75,000 patients find relief from chronic neck or back pain using our minimally invasive spine surgery. Because of our minimally invasive approach to the spine, our patients can experience a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication compared to patients who have traditional open spine surgery.

It’s time to take the next step toward pain relief. Contact Laser Spine Institute today for a no-cost MRI review* to find out if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures.