A slipped disc, also called a prolapsed or herniated disc, occurs when one of the discs of the spine is ruptured (split) and the gel inside leaks out. This causes back pain and can also cause pain in other areas of the body.
The spine is made up of 24 individual bones called vertebrae, which are stacked on top of each other. Discs are the protective, circular pads of cartilage (connective tissue) that lie in between the vertebrae. The discs are responsible for cushioning the vertebrae when jumping or running.
The spinal cord is a collection of nerve fibres that are attached to the brain and are protected by the spine. Nerve fibres from the spinal cord pass between the vertebrae as they take and receive messages to and from different parts of the body.
A Slipped Disc
The discs are made from a tough, fibrous case, which contains a softer, gel-like substance. A slipped disc occurs when the outer part of the disc ruptures, allowing the gel inside to bulge and protrude outwards between the vertebrae.
The damaged disc can put pressure on the whole spinal cord or on a single nerve fibre. This means that a slipped disc can cause pain both in the area of the protruding disc and in any part of the body that is controlled by the nerve that the disc is pressing on.
How Common Is A Slipped Disc?
Slipped discs are most common in people between the ages of 30 and 50. The condition affects twice as many men as women.
A slipped disc occurs most frequently in the lower back, but any disc can rupture, including those in the upper back and neck. Around one-third of adults in the UK have lower back pain, and a slipped disc is responsible for less than 5% of cases.
It can take around four to six weeks to recover from a slipped disc. In most cases treatment involves a combination of physical therapy, such as exercise and massage, and medication to relieve the pain.
In severe cases, or if the pain continues for longer than six weeks, surgery may be considered. A number of different procedures can release the compressed nerve and remove part of the disc. The success rate for surgery on the lumber (lower) spine is around 60-90%.