What is a slipped disc and how can you treat it?

With around a third of UK adults suffering from lower back pain, a fairly common complaint is a slipped disc.

Roughly one in 20 people will suffer from this and it’s something that can cause varying degrees of pain or discomfort – in fact it’s possible to suffer from a slipped disc and not even notice. The good news is that it’s not necessarily a serious problem and something that is usually treatable.

What’s a disc?

Firstly the name is a little misleading as the discs don’t actually slip out of place in a literal sense.

There are 24 moving bones in the spine and between each of these there are protective ‘discs’ of cartilage. Their roles include weight-bearing as well as maintaining flexibility and movement of the back and they can break down over time.

Imagine each disc as a small water balloon inside a larger one, but instead of water they’re filled with a thicker substance. Even though they are largely fluid, they do have fibres in them which can tear and cause pain either in the inner layer, the nucleus pulposus or the outer, the annulus fibrosis. Tears can happen in either layer but are more common in the annulus.

MRI scan

Slipped disc types

  1. Annular tear is a tear to the annulus fibrosis which can result in lower back pain, sometimes referring pain into the leg
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  3. A bulge or protrusion is a more significant injury that can often present as a swelling on the back of the disc – this will not be visible from the surface as the disc is deep inside the spine, but you can see it on MRI like this one.
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  5. Herniation is when the back of the annulus ruptures and can be one of the more painful types to say the least.

 
Treatments

Treatment of a slipped disc is all about symptom control initially. This may include anything from painkillers to acupuncture and techniques aimed at mobilising the area. The specific exercises will depend on the type and severity of the slipped disc, ranging from ‘Z Lying’ to slow trunk rotations as shown in this video.

The next step is to then strengthen the lower back and help avoid any recurrence in the future. This should also take into the account the reasons the injury occurred in the first place, whether that’s poor posture at work or simply a case of muscles not being strong enough.