A Slipped Disc in Your Neck or Back – What It Means and What You Can Do

Many people use the term slipped disc when discussing general neck or back pain and one of its most common causes — a damaged disc. The spinal discs are flexible cushions that serve as shock absorbers between the vertebrae. Each disc consists of a soft, gelatinous inner core surrounded by a hard, outer shell. The term slipped disc usually refers to a condition that does not involve any slippage in the true sense of the word. Instead, what is actually going on is that a spinal disc has sustained damage. This can occur through sudden trauma, such as a car accident or a bout of heavy lifting, or it can result from age-related degeneration.

Specifically, if the outer border of a slipped disc remains intact, the condition is known as a bulging disc. Alternatively, if the outer border tears or breaks open, the condition is known as a herniated disc. Sometimes, a slipped disc is also referred to as a prolapsed disc.

Why your neck or back hurts

A slipped disc is not always painful, but when it is, the pain can occur in one of two ways. The disc itself may hurt, creating localized pain in the neck or back. Or, the damage may cause the disc to bulge outside of its normal boundaries – in essence, the disc is said to have slipped out of position – such that it is irritating or pressing on the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root. This can produce radicular pain, which radiates from the spine to other areas of the body, such as an arm or leg (when a leg is involved, the symptoms are known as sciatica).

Even if a slipped disc causes pain, the discomfort is often temporary. Studies show that the displaced portion of a disc will often slowly regress or shrink back to its normal position on its own over time, and after that, the symptoms will resolve. Typically, patients who are experiencing mild to moderate pain are advised to follow their daily routines as closely as possible, using over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories as necessary. Of course, any activities that cause or worsen pain should be minimized or avoided. Even though a brief rest can sometimes be helpful, prolonged inactivity can potentially worsen the discomfort of a slipped disc.

When to see a doctor

A slipped disc that causes low back pain accompanied by incontinence requires immediate medical attention. Bladder or bowel issues, numbness in the “saddle” area and leg weakness are all possible signs of a very serious and potentially life-threatening nerve disorder known as cauda equina syndrome. In this situation, emergency treatment may be needed to preserve bladder or bowel function.

Otherwise, if the associated neck or back pain is severe or doesn’t seem to be getting any better, a physician can usually confirm a diagnosis of a slipped disc (and rule out other, more serious conditions) by evaluating the symptoms, performing a physical examination and reviewing imaging studies, such as X-rays or MRIs. The physician can then recommend appropriate treatments designed to help the patient get through the “wait and watch” period. For instance, a physician may:

  • Refer a patient to a physical therapist, chiropractor or massage therapist
  • Prescribe stronger medications, such as codeine or muscle relaxants, if over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatories prove to be insufficient
  • Administer corticosteroid injections in the spine to help reduce painful inflammation

Surgery is rarely needed

While rarely necessary for treating a slipped disc, unless cauda equina syndrome develops, surgery may be considered if:

  • The pain is severe and continues to worsen despite conservative treatment
  • The patient is having trouble standing or walking
  • There is evidence of extensive nerve compression

The goal of spinal decompression surgery is usually to remove all or part of a slipped disc that is compressing the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root. A surgeon may accomplish this by performing a traditional open spine procedure. However, there might be a minimally invasive alternative. For instance, the board certified+ surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive procedures that are safer and effective alternatives to traditional open neck and back procedures.^

If you’re considering surgery to address the pain of a slipped disc, you should know that the minimally invasive spine surgery performed at Laser Spine Institute is often the clinically appropriate first choice and provides many advantages versus open neck or back surgery.^ To learn more, contact us today for a no-cost MRI review* to determine if you may be a potential candidate for one of our procedures.