Slipped discs - symptoms, causes and prevention

As anyone who has experienced it will know, a slipped disc can be extremely painful and keep you out of action for weeks. If you are prone to this agonising condition or would like to more about how to prevent it, here's what you need to know.

slipped disc symptoms treatment and prevention

Pic: Getty

What is a slipped disc?
Each of the 24 vertebrae in the human back is separated by protective, circular pads of cartilage - the discs. Contained within the tough exterior of each disc is a gel-like substance that cushions the bones as they move. When this outer casing ruptures, the gel within bulges or protrudes out, described as a slipped disc. This damage to the disc and put pressure on either a single nerve or the whole spinal cord.

Although some people who have a slipped disc display no obvious symptoms, most experience pain that begins in the lower back and can spread to other parts of the body.

The majority of slipped discs press on one of the nerves in the spine, often the sciatic nerve, and this pressure causes an aching pain or numbness, often extending into the buttocks and one or both legs, where some tingling may also occur.

Where the ruptured disc presses on other nerves, muscle paralysis or painful spasms can occur, and occasionally loss of bladder control.

Though it is not always easy to find a specific cause for a slipped disc, it can be as a result of a particular strain on your spine, such as bending awkwardly, or awkward or heavy lifting. Being overweight, leading a very sedentary lifestyle, particularly if you do a lot of driving, and smoking are also known to weaken the disc tissue, which can lead to a rupture.

Age can also cause a weakening of the tissue, and slipped discs are most commonly found in those between the ages of 30 and 50, with men twice as likely to suffer as women.

Thankfully, in the majority of cases, a slipped disc will eventually shrink back to its proper position, although this commonly takes between four to six weeks.

With such a lengthy recovery period, sufferers will almost certainly require painkillers, and if your pain is severe, a prescription medication from your doctor may help to ease the symptoms.

For the first few days, it is important to rest completely, but after the initial period of incapacity, a little mobility can speed up recovery. Your doctor should advise when and how much exercise to do, but activities like swimming, where your body weight is supported, are ideal for strengthening the muscles without putting any strain on your back.

Physiotherapy or osteopathy may help, although you'll usually need to pay for the latter yourself.

Around one in 10 cases, where the nerve compression is severe, the symptoms do not improve, or you have continued difficulty standing or walking, require surgery. There are a number of possible procedures, most of which involve removing part of the slipped disc, though sometimes a replacement disc is inserted.

Since age-related deterioration of the discs is a common reason for a rupture, maintaining good posture and getting regular exercise to keep the muscles strong and flexible is key to avoiding a slipped disc.

Slipped discs caused by sitting or driving for long periods, or frequent heavy lifting, can also be avoided. It is essential to lift safely, bending your back, hips and knees as you lift, keeping the weight close to your waist and keeping your head up as you carry. And if you your job requires you to sit all day, try to take regular breaks, stretch and walk around, and ensure that you invest in a comfortable seat with lumbar support.

If you think you may be suffering from a slipped disc or have continuing problems, it is essential to speak to your GP for advice about embarking on an exercise regime, medication, alternative therapies or possible surgery.

Have you suffered with a slipped disc? What helped you to recover and have you made any lifestyle changes to prevent any further problems? Leave your comments below...