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What does a ‘slipped disc’ actually mean?

You’ve probably heard of a slipped disc. It’s a common spinal injury which can cause severe pain. But what does this term really mean? You might think of a ‘slipped disc’ as a disc dislodging, or slipping out from your spine. This isn’t what happens. To know what actually takes place, it’s helps to understand some basic spinal anatomy. Let’s take a look…

There’s a disc between each vertebra in your spine − a bit like a rubbery cushion. The spinal disc has a soft inner core or jelly-like centre that’s surrounded by strong cartilage. When we talk about a slipped disc, we mean that the ‘jelly’ has pushed or protruded through the cartilage, forming a bulge or herniation on the outside of the disc. So the more accurate term is a disc herniation − nothing slips.

A herniated disc can press on a nearby spinal nerve. Just as standing on a garden hose blocks the flow of water, pressure on nerve tissue changes the flow of messages that travel along this nerve. This is why pain is not always felt at the injury site. A disc herniation in your neck may affect an arm and a disc herniation in your low back may affect a leg. The involved limb might experience burning, stinging, or electrical pain, weakness or numbness.

How to prevent a herniated disc

As always, prevention is the best cure. To limit your risk of experiencing a herniated disc, quit (or never start) smoking. Smoking damages the discs, just as it damages other tissues. If you have diabetes, manage it carefully. If you carry extra weight, especially excessive tummy fat, aim to whittle it down to healthy levels.

Exercise regularly, keep flexible and strengthen your core; yoga, cycling, swimming, and walking all help maintain good core strength and flexibility. To find some simple core strengthening exercises, see our article about the core and sit-ups. It’s also very important to maintain correct posture when carrying out daily tasks, especially lifting.

Can a herniated disc be treated?

A herniated disc may resolve on its own, this is called spontaneous resorption. Recovery can be supported with

conservative, non-surgical management. Ice, heat, and analgesics may also help.

Speak to us if you have any questions about disc herniations. We’re happy to provide answers and advice.

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