Slipped Disc 101: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment & Prevention

Learn more about its symptoms, causes and treatment available in Malaysia.

by Katherine Khaw

What is a Slipped Disc?

First, it is important to define what a slipped disc is. This is a condition where the soft cushion of tissue, between the bones of the spine, is pushed out. As a result, it may compress nearby nerves, causing pain. A spinal disc is a soft, jelly-like centre with a tougher, rubbery exterior.

Some people may not have symptoms, and the symptoms generally improve over time.

Symptoms of Slipped Disc

While the symptoms may not be too serious, here are some ways to recognise the possibility of the condition in your body.

They usually affect one side of the body:

  • Arm or leg pain. If the slipped disc occurs in the lower back, in addition to the back pain, you may also feel pain in the foot or calf. If the slipped disc occurs in the neck area, most of the additional pain will be felt in the shoulder and arm. Sneezing, coughing or moving into certain positions may result in shooting pain.
  • Numbness or tingling sensation. A person with a slipped disc typically experiences a numbing sensation in the affected area.
  • Episodes of weakness. Muscles that have been affected by the nerves, eventually weaken. Then, this may cause you to stumble, trip or be unable to lift something.
  • Stiffness. You may have trouble bending or straightening your back.

Sometimes, it may not be a slipped disc, but a muscle sprain or strain instead. These symptoms may not be specific enough unless the pain is experienced extensively.

Risk Factors of Slipped Disc

risk-factors-slipped-discThese are some factors that may increase your risk of slipped disk. Examples are as follows:

  • Gender. Men are more likely to experience slipped discs.
  • Lifting. A person who lifts heavy objects with their back muscles instead of legs may increase their risk of injury.
  • Weight. A person who weighs heavily will have added pressure and stress on the discs in the lower back area.
  • Repetitive actions may strain one’s spine. Some jobs are demanding physically. Jobs that require lifting, pulling, bending and twisting may hurt you in the long run. Practice safe movements to protect your back.
  • Sitting for a long time and/or a sedentary lifestyle. Be it driving or at a desk job, this can increase your risk of a slipped disc as this causes pressure on the spine.
  • Smoking. Smoking is known to bring various adverse effects to the human body. In this case, less oxygen is supplied to the disc and it may lead to rapid degeneration.

Slipped Disc Causes

Primarily, slipped discs are caused due to the natural wear and tear that comes with age. Thus, older adults fall into this category. Known as disc degeneration, it is a circumstance that in due time, the protective water content in the disks decreases. With less flexibility, it also begins to shrink and the space between the vertebrae gets smaller. Then, the discs are prone to herniation.

Falling down is a traumatic event that can cause this to happen as well, along with actions like lifting a heavy object with the wrong posture. 

Diagnosing Slipped Disc

After experiencing some of the symptoms (or having had a bad fall), it is wise to check your condition with a healthcare provider. In order to diagnose slipped disc, these are some of the possible procedures to expect during the checkup.

1. Physical examination

After hearing about your symptoms and family medical history, the doctor will carry out a physical examination.

  • An examination to check if you have any signs of muscle weakness or loss of sensation. The doctor will check your muscle strength when you walk, or whether you can feel a light touch. Your knee and ankle reflexes would be observed as well.
  • There is a test called straight leg raise (SLR). During this procedure, you will be asked to lie on your back. The doctor will raise the affected leg, with your knee staying straight. If there is pain down the leg and below the knee, you may have a slipped disc.

2. Imaging tests

In some cases, imaging tests will be carried out in order to view the bones and muscles of the spine. Then, damaged areas can be seen and attended to, if required. Some relevant imaging tests include:

  • X-rays
  • CT scans
  • MRI scans
  • Discogram (an imaging test used to evaluate back pain)

In cases where a person is unable to handle an MRI scan, usually, a CT scan or CT myelogram could be ordered instead.

Treating Slipped Discs

Most patients recover within weeks. Then, a person would be free from symptoms after 3-4 months. There are two types of treatment options: non-surgical and surgical.

Non-Surgical Treatment

Most treatments begin in a non-surgical manner. Patients may be advised of the following:

  • Maintain a low activity level in order to lessen the spinal nerve inflammation
  • To be treated with medication (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication)
  • Possible physical therapy (may include pelvic traction, gentle massage, ice and heat therapy, stretching exercises, etc.)
  • Rest, but avoid prolonged bed rest as this may strain the spine

These treatments do not heal the slipped disc but instead, it can alleviate the symptoms. Most of the time, the body will recover on its own.

Surgical Treatment

In some cases, patients may require surgery. However, this is usually only considered if the symptoms have not been relieved after an extended amount of time, or if patients are experiencing the following issues: muscle weakness, difficulty in walking, and loss of bowel or bladder control.

These are some of the surgical options available to treat a severe case of slipped disc:

  • Microdiscectomy. This is the common procedure done to treat a slipped disc. There is a small incision at the level of the affected disc, and usually includes the use of a microscope.
  • Lumbar spine surgery. This kind of procedure is used to relieve leg pain and sciatica caused by a slipped disc. In artificial disc surgery, the affected disc is removed and replaced. However, it depends on which disc is affected and based on other factors, not patient is suitable for this surgery.
  • Cervical spine surgery. This is a surgery focusing on a slipped disc in the neck area. This depends on the location and experience of the surgeon.

After a surgical procedure, there is normally a period of rehabilitation and recovery as well. The doctor will give follow-up instructions and recommend suitable painkillers. Discomfort is a part of the recovery process, but in case of any significant pain, it may be a sign to lessen activity.

To reduce the risk of another slipped disc, the doctor may prohibit you from bending, lifting or twisting during recovery.

Steps for Prevention 

It is not possible to prevent the slipped disc from occurring, but you can reduce the risk of getting it. Here are some ways that you can practice accordingly.

  • Lift objects safely by bending from your knees, instead of the waist.
  • Keep to a healthy weight to avoid additional pressure on the discs in the lower back area.
  • Incorporate stretches in your routine, especially if you are seated most of the time due to work or lifestyle.
  • Carry out exercises that can strengthen back and leg muscles.
  • Maintain good posture, while sitting, walking, standing and sleeping, to reduce strain on the spine.
  • Minimise wearing high-heeled shoes as this type of shoe can hurt the spine over time.
  • Avoid smoking as this can weaken discs, due to the content of the cigarette.

Slipped Disc Complications

In uncommon cases, a slipped disc may compress the spinal canal. This may cause permanent weakness or paralysis, if there is no emergency intervention, due to a condition called cauda equina syndrome. 

Medical care is needed quickly if you experience the following:

  • Symptoms that are worsening. If there is increasing pain, numbness or weakness, you should take note of these, especially if it interferes with your day-to-day activities.
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control. Loss of control may result in incontinence or difficulty in urinating, despite a full bladder.
  • Saddle anaesthesia. This is a loss of sensation in areas that would touch a saddle, such as the inner thighs, the back of the legs, and the area around the rectum.

Therefore, it is vital to assess your condition and seek treatment accordingly.

About the Writer
Katherine Khaw
Katherine is an avid reader, finding joy in halls of words. Aside from the imagination wandering in worlds not here, she enjoys stargazing and gardening. In her heart of hearts, she aspires to be a writer, and to be more than mere dust.
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