The term ‘slipped disc’ is a common phrase people use when talking about back pain. Interestingly, that is not the term used to describe the condition by medical professionals, mostly because ‘slipped disc’ is an incredibly misleading phrase. The term leads to confusion and misconceptions about the condition, its causes, and possible treatments. So, what really is a slipped disc? How can it be diagnosed? Are there non-invasive, non-surgical treatment options?
What Is A “Slipped Disc?”
Your spinal column is made up of a series of bones (vertebrae) stacked onto each other. These bones are cushioned by intervertebral discs. The discs protect the bones by absorbing the shocks from daily activities like walking, lifting, and twisting. Each disc has two parts: a soft, gelatinous inner portion and a tough outer ring. “Discs are actually primarily gelatinous sacks, and you can’t necessarily see them. What you see is the vertebrae above and below with the space [disc] in between,” explains Dr. Kyle Smerglia of Smerglia Chiropractic. Injury or weakness can cause the inner portion of the disc to protrude through the outer ring. This is what people commonly call a ‘slipped disc’. Why isn’t this the term used in medicine? Dr. Smerglia clears that up. “You don’t really ever ‘slip’ a disc. A slipped disc is usually a herniated or bulging disc.” It can also be what medicine refers to as a prolapsed disc.
Misconceptions Surrounding “Slipped Discs”
As frightening as the term disc herniation may sound, the condition is common. Many people will experience disc herniation without ever noticing a symptom, and it does not necessarily equate to a lifetime of pain and discomfort. Most importantly, significant, painful, invasive surgery is not the only treatment option.
Knowing When your “Slipped Disc” Is Something More
Not every instance of disc herniation result in damage to the spinal nerves, but if left untreated nerve damage is a possibility. The herniated disc can irritate nearby spinal nerves and, in rare cases, may cut off nerve impulses altogether. Bulging discs can break off causing more serious injury, too. “If left untreated you can absolutely run into more issues and problems with a bulging or herniated disc. They are such intense issues that you can’t just leave them to be treated eventually. Don’t sit on the couch waiting to get it checked and addressed at some point,” cautions Dr. Smerglia.
Most people suffering from a herniated or bulging disc will experience low back (lumbar spine) pain. Many reports leg pain, too. Often, sufferers do not experience severe pain immediately, but the discomfort grows as the condition remains untreated.
To diagnose your back pain, an MRI is often used. “You measure the space between the vertebrae in an MRI to identify a disc issue. If the space is smaller than it should be, that’s how you can tell it’s either bulging, herniated, or degenerating,” says Dr. Smerglia. Degenerative Disc Disease (DDD) occurs when the discs aren’t staying hydrated enough and is typically a result of wear and tear over time from normal activities. The greatest risk factor for Degenerative Disc Disease is age. The symptoms can be similar to a herniated disc though, where both commonly appear as low back pain, the low back pain from a degenerative disc is often accompanied by pain that travels up and down the leg, too. If you are experiencing this kind of pain, see your chiropractor immediately. Nonsurgical treatment can include heat or cold therapy as well as physical therapy, surgical treatment ranges from disc replacement to spinal fusion. The sooner DDD is diagnosed and treated, the more likely nonsurgical treatment will be effective.
Treatment and Prevention
Can a person prevent “slipped discs”? “Yes, there are so many things we could do to prevent bulging or herniated discs. There are exercises, and I don’t mean bodybuilding or anything crazy, but simple floor exercises that can strengthen the back muscles to prevent disc issues,” assures Dr. Smerglia. The key to prevention is regular exercise and improvement of muscle strength in the back. Maintaining a healthy weight aids in the prevention of disc injury, too.
Does treatment have to be surgical? Or require prescription medication? Fortunately, no. Often, treatment includes exercise programs that strengthen the back and its muscles (much like prevention exercises do). When first experiencing symptoms of disc injury, over-the-counter pain relievers may be employed (including when treatment begins) but typically prescription pain relievers are not necessary unless the pain persists for over six weeks. Most sufferers who are diagnosed and prescribed an exercise program (and stick with it) experience a reduction in pain and improvement in movement within this time frame.
That said, exercise alone may not be enough to address the problem. Regular chiropractic care, including spinal adjustments, may be needed. “We love working with backs [at Smerglia Chiropractic]. It’s a specialty of ours. We use the Cox Flexion Distraction Technique, a technique not many offices employ or are licensed in. We use the special tables to help relieve lower back issues with discs in a slow and easy way without adding further injury,” explains Dr. Smerglia. As luck would have it, that same regular care can help improve the health of spinal discs aiding in prevention of future injury, too. “We have patients that will come once a month to get tuned up and keep everything working, the way it should,” he says.
For those whom adjustments and exercise do not relieve the pain and treat the disc, surgical intervention is an option. Surgery can range from minimally invasive (like a conventional microdiscectomy) to major, more invasive surgeries like decompression surgery (laminectomy), spinal fusion or disc replacement.
Despite the term ‘slipped disc’ being a bit of a misnomer, the ailment itself is no joke. Left untreated, bulging, prolapsed or herniated discs can cause lasting and serious damage, at which point the only treatment may be any number of surgical procedures ranging from minor to invasive. If you think you may be suffering from disc herniation or another disc injury, don’t wait to schedule an appointment with your chiropractor.
Don’t have a regular chiropractor? Reach out to the experts at Smerglia Chiropractic to start your spinal health journey today.