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Is "Slipped Disc" a Real Condition?


Many people who experience neck pain, back pain, leg pain and other symptoms describe the source of pain as a “slipped disc.” Although this is a common term that is even used by many medical professionals, it does not represent an official diagnosis. Instead, it generally describes a number of specific spine conditions that may include bulging discs, herniated discs or spondylolisthesis, which is a condition where a vertebra and disc slips out of its normal position in the spine.

Essentially, slipped disc is a term that describes a disc or disc material becoming displaced or slipping out of its normal place in the spinal column. These conditions may not result in causing a patient to feel pain and other symptoms. However, if a slipped disc causes compression or irritation of the spinal nerves, debilitating symptoms can result.

To learn more about how disc conditions that are called slipped discs develop, take some time to review the following easy-to-understand information. The USA Spine Care team is here to help and we welcome you to reach out to us with any questions.

Understanding the spinal discs and disc conditions

In the spinal column, the discs are rubbery cushions that sit between the vertebrae and basically act as shock absorbers. This allows us to bend and flex our neck and back, while still giving the spine sufficient rigidity to support the upper body and protect the spinal cord. There are discs in each of the three regions of the spine, but the discs in the middle, or thoracic, region undergo the least amount of stress because this area is fixed to the ribcage.

This means the cervical (upper) and lumbar (lower) discs undergo the most stress and are most prone to injury and age-related degeneration. Over time our discs dry out and lose elasticity, causing bulging and tiny tears and cracks that can lead to herniation.

How a slipped disc can affect the spinal nerves and cause symptoms

As mentioned above, age-related disc degeneration does not necessarily cause symptoms, but it can cause you to feel pain if it disrupts spinal nerves by narrowing the spinal column. The symptoms can vary by location in the following ways: 

  • Cervical slipped discs: Disc conditions in the upper spine cause neck pain as well as radiating symptoms in the upper extremities, including the arms and hands.
  • Thoracic slipped discs: Although relatively uncommon, disc conditions here cause middle back pain as well as potential symptoms in the chest and abdominal regions.
  • Lumbar slipped discs: Disc conditions in the lower spine can cause lower back pain, leg pain and tingling, numbness and muscle weakness in the lower body.

How to find relief from a slipped disc

In a large number of cases, conservative therapies are highly effective for slipped disc relief. Doctors commonly recommend the following after diagnosing conditions such as herniated or bulging discs:

  • Periods of rest
  • Gentle stretches and low-impact exercise
  • Over-the-counter medication such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Hot and/or cold compression therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Pain-relieving steroid injections

It’s also important to practice a spine-healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, good nutrition, proper posture and mechanics to reduce the amount of stress on our discs. This can help both relieve a slipped disc that has already developed as well as potentially prevent future development. By committing to a healthy lifestyle and conservative treatment, many patients are able to successfully manage a slipped disc.

When to consider spine surgery

Spinal disc conditions called slipped discs, including bulging discs, herniated discs and spondylolisthesis, often respond well to conservative therapies. However, if weeks or months of attempting nonsurgical treatment do not bring the relief for a good quality of life, surgery should become a serious consideration.

If there is an operable condition that is causing nerve compression, surgeons can perform procedures to remove damaged or displaced disc material from the affected nerve. In other situations, if disc slippage or injury is causing spinal instability, a stabilization procedure, also commonly called a fusion, can help to stabilize the spinal column.

At the state-of-the-art facilities at USA Spine Care, our world class surgeons can treat a wide range of disc conditions using minimally invasive spine surgery. These outpatient procedures are associated with less risk of complication and a shorter recovery period compared to traditional open spine surgery.

Our multidisciplinary team can also help you create a personalized treatment plan that includes physical therapy and spinal injections if you are still exploring conserviative therapy. We’re dedicated to helping you overcome slipped disc pain so you can get back to the people and activities you love. Contact us today to learn more.

Slipped Disc Quick Answers

How does a slipped disc feel?

Slipped disc symptoms vary by the specific condition being called a slipped disc, the location and whether there is compression of spinal nerves. Common symptoms include neck and/or back pain and leg pain. Symptoms may also include neuropathy, such as tingling, numbness and muscle weakness in the extremities.

How do you treat a slipped disc?

Most spinal disc conditions are first treated with conservative therapies, such as rest, ice, heat therapy and over-the-counter medications. In more severe cases, patients may undergo spinal injections and physical therapy. Surgery is generally considered when conservative treatments have been exhausted, but it can be an effective method to relieve spinal nerve compression.

What areas does a slipped disc affect?

A disc condition can develop on any level of the spinal column, but are most common in the upper and lower regions in the neck and lower back. That is because these parts of the spine are the most flexible compared to the middle spine, which is fixed to the ribcage.

Can a slipped disc heal on its own?

It is possible for individual cases of disc conditions to heal by themselves. However, because the discs degenerate over time due to the aging process, the likelihood of developing or re-developing a slipped disc or other disc condition increases with age. This is why it’s important to be proactive about treatment and practice a spine-healthy lifestyle.

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