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Slipped Disc or Herniated Disc — What's the Difference?


Whether you call it a slipped disc, slip disc, disc slip, bulging disc or herniated disc, back pain and other symptoms from any condition related to a damaged spinal disc can be excruciating. The lost mobility and discomfort can affect your family time, ability to work and your hobbies and leisure activities. Fortunately, there are effective treatment options that can offer significant relief, particularly when combined with a healthy lifestyle. 

A great first step in your journey to relief is educating yourself as a patient, including about the terms describing disc-related conditions. Terms such as slipped disc or slip disc, are actually nonmedical descriptions of conditions ranging from herniated discs to bulging discs. By learning more about the causes of these conditions and the effective treatment options, you can give yourself the best chance of finding the back pain or neck pain relief you deserve. 

If you have any questions about the following information or want to learn more about effective treatment, please feel free to get in touch with our team. The USA Spine Care team is here to help. 

Understanding spinal disc conditions

The discs in the spinal column essentially act as shock absorbers for the vertebrae, allowing the spine to bend and flex. The discs are made of a tough outer layer consisting of cartilage and a gelatinous inner layer. Over time, the discs begin to lose their natural elasticity due to aging and other causes. 

This causes the discs to be less able to withstand daily pressures and more susceptible to injuries. The term slipped disc most commonly refers to a condition known as a herniated disc. This is when the gelatinous inner layer pushes, or slips, through a tear or weak spot in the outer layer. A slipped disc can also refer to a condition called spondylolisthesis, where an individual vertebra and accompanying disc slips out of its normal place in the spinal column. 

Symptoms of a slipped disc include back pain and mobility problems

Symptoms of disc conditions are usually caused by compression of nerves by disc material. The discs themselves have very little nervous tissue and so it is rare for the disc themselves to cause pain. However, due to the limited space in the spinal column a disc bulge or herniated disc material can narrow the nerve pathways, compressing or irritating surrounding nerves. 

This can lead to the following common slipped disc symptoms:

  • Back pain
  • Neck pain
  • Radiating pain into the upper or lower extremities
  • Tingling, numbness and muscles weakness
  • Spasms
  • Leg pain and difficulty walking

Diagnosing and treating your disc condition with a medical professional

Anyone experiencing any of the above symptoms for longer than a few days or a week should see their doctor for diagnosis and treatment. A qualified medical professional can tell you what specific condition your slipped disc actually is by taking the following steps:

  • Reviewing your medical and treatment history
  • Asking questions about symptoms and how they affect your lifestyle
  • Performing a hands-on examination movement tests
  • Ordering diagnostic testing such as an MRI or X-ray

After confirming diagnosis of a disc-related condition as the source of symptoms, conservative treatments will usually be attempted first. Common options include:

  • Periods of rest
  • Medication, including over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen
  • Physical therapy
  • Pain-relieving steroid injections

It is also important to practice good posture, eat a healthy diet and stay physically active. These can reduce pressure on the spine, relieve inflammation and help strengthen muscles and improve circulation.  

Exploring surgical options for disc conditions

Conservative treatments are often effective, but surgery can become a serious consideration if weeks or months go by and symptoms do not improve. Spine surgery such as discectomy, where the surgeon removes only the disc material that is causing nerve compression, can be performed using minimally invasive techniques on an outpatient basis. This allows patients to be up and on their feet within hours of the procedure and start the all-important recovery phase sooner.

If you are living with a slipped disc condition such as a herniated disc or bulging disc, the caring team at USA Spine Care can help. Our multidisciplinary experts can help you design a personalized treatment plan built for your needs and specific diagnosis. 

Contact us today to learn more. 

Slipped Disc Quick Answers

What happens when a person gets a slipped disc?

“Slipped disc” is a general term for a number of disc conditions that cause displacement of disc material and the potential for painful nerve compression. As a result of injury or aging, the spinal discs can suffer bulges and herniations that narrow nerve pathways and compress or irritate nerves. There is also a condition known as spondylolisthesis that causes a vertebra and spinal disc to slip over the one beneath it in the spinal column. If you think you may have a slipped disc, always see a doctor for diagnosis and treatment. 

How do you fix a slipped disc?

The best course of treatment for a disc condition causing painful symptoms varies on the specific diagnosis and individual patient factors. In most cases, conservative therapies will be recommended to help manage symptoms and improve function while you and your doctor monitor the progress of the condition. Surgery is usually a last resort treatment, but it can offer the best chance of relief if conservative treatments are no longer effective for symptom relief. 

Can a slipped disc heal on its own?

It is possible for individual cases of a herniated or bulging disc to heal and for symptoms to improve. However, since the underlying cause of disc conditions is usually the natural aging process, disc conditions such as herniated and bulging discs become more difficult to heal and more likely to develop. The best way to promote the healing process for a disc condition is to practice a spine healthy lifestyle and be actively involved with your treatment. 

How long does a slipped disc take to heal?

Recovery for a spinal disc condition or injury varies from person to person depending on a number of factors. These include age of the patient, severity of the condition, weight, activity level and the existence of any comorbidities. The period of time for a specific condition to improve usually ranges within a period of weeks to months, although it may be longer in certain cases.

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