What Is a Slipped Disc? | Keck Medicine of USC

What Is a Slipped Disc?

Though it sounds like it results in a painful backache, some people can have a slipped disc without even knowing it. Read on to learn more.

Picture a jelly donut. Now picture that jelly oozing out of the doughy shell. That’s what happens when your spinal discs, the rubbery cushions between vertebrae, “slip.”

A slipped disc can cause pain, numbness or weakness in your arm or leg, though some people have no symptoms at all. The condition also is called a herniated or ruptured disc.

Slipped discs are not usually caused by accidents or falls; rather, they are the result of years of wear and tear. As you get older, your spinal discs degenerate, losing some of their ability to cushion the vertebrae. This makes them less flexible and more likely to tear, even with minor twisting or strain. Slipped discs can happen when you’re lifting something heavy by bending over and using your back and shoulder muscles, rather than by squatting down to let your leg muscles do most of the work.

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Other factors that can increase your risk of slipped discs, include physically demanding jobs that require you to work with heavy objects, regularly lifting, pushing or pulling them; being overweight and being genetically predisposed to them.

Typically your doctor will diagnose a slipped disc based off of a physical exam and your medical history. An MRI can help to identify the exact location of the slipped disc and to tell which nerves are affected.

Treatment for slipped discs

The first line of treatment for a slipped disc is rest and pain medication. Over-the-counter pain medications are generally the first line of defense, but if these aren’t effective, your doctor may give you a cortisone injection into the spinal nerve, or prescribe a muscle relaxer or a stronger pain reliever.

If the pain has not improved within a few weeks, you may want to try physical therapy. A physical therapist can show you exercises to strengthen surrounding muscles and make sure you are lifting and moving appropriately.

Alternative therapies, including massage, chiropractic care and acupuncture all may offer some relief from the pain.

If none of these treatments are effective after six weeks and/or you are continuing to experience numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, have difficulty standing or walking or are experiencing incontinence, your physician may suggest surgery, including microdiscectomy. During surgery, most often your surgeon will simply remove the protruding portion of the disc.

“When all else fails, a minimally invasive spine operation can be very effective,” explains John C. Liu, MD, professor of neurosurgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and co-director of the USC Spine Center at Keck Medicine of USC. “What that is, is a small incision, usually about 18 millimeters in length. We then sequentially dilate down to the spine, find that herniated disc and get that pressure away from the nerve.”

While the minimally invasive treatment is an outpatient procedure that only takes about 90 minutes, in more severe cases, you may need an artificial disc. It’s important to work with your doctor to find the best treatment for you.

by Anne Fritz

If you have neck or back pain or another spine problem, the experts of the USC Spine Center offer comprehensive spine care. To request an appointment with a USC spine specialist, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting spine.keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment/.