What does the term “slipped disc” mean?

If you’ve been diagnosed with a slipped disc, you might have logically imagined a disc slipping completely out of place in your spine, but this is not the case at all. The term is actually a not physically accurate; discs are attached to adjacent vertebrae with tough, ligamentous fibers, so discs can’t actually “slip.” The flexible nature of these fibers allows discs to help spinal movement and absorb shock. However, as these fibers deteriorate over time due to normal wear and tear, a disc can move, bulge and rupture, ultimately expanding past its normal boundary within the spine.

The term slipped disc is often used interchangeably, and sometimes incorrectly, with bulging disc and herniated/ruptured disc, but there are some unique distinctions between these specific conditions. These distinctions have mostly to do with the manner in which a disc loses its shape.

While there is even disagreement among physicians on how to define various types of disc degeneration, a bulging disc may be defined as a contained, 50- to 100-percent circumferential expansion of disc material; think of a hamburger that is a bit too large for its bun. A herniated disc is often defined as the localized displacement of inner disc material (nucleus pulposus) that may or may not be contained within a disc’s outer wall (annulus fibrosus). You can think of a contained herniated disc as a balloon that has been squeezed until a small portion of it protrudes abnormally. Jelly oozing out of a donut is similar to a noncontained herniated disc.

A slipped disc is a herniated disc

A slipped disc is typically defined as a disc in the prolapse stage of herniation. Prolapse occurs when inner disc material pushes against a weakened yet still intact annular (ring-shaped) wall and causes a localized portion of disc material to project outward past adjacent vertebrae.

Disc herniation can continue in the following stages:

  • Extrusion — occurs when an annular tear (the tough exterior of a disc rips or tears) allows the nucleus pulposus to leak out of the disc; leaked inner disc material is still connected to the disc
  • Sequestration — occurs when leaked inner disc material invades the spinal canal and is no longer attached to the disc; also known as ruptured disc

Can slipped discs cause symptoms?

Not all cases of slipped discs are symptomatic. In fact, many patients who are told they have the condition are surprised to hear the news because they never felt any pain. However, a slipped disc can cause pain, numbness, weakness and tingling in the extremities when the spinal cord and/or any nearby nerve roots are compressed or impinged. Most patients are able to relieve these symptoms through the use of conservative, nonsurgical treatments, such as medication and physical therapy.

However, if you have a slipped disc in your neck or back and conservative therapies have failed to relieve your pain, you may want to discuss surgical options with your physician and explore the minimally invasive procedures performed at Laser Spine Institute. We offer patients a safe and effective alternative to open spine surgery through our innovative, outpatient procedures. Contact us to learn more.