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Back pain health centre

Prolapsed disc - Treating a slipped disc

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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In most cases, a slipped disc will eventually shrink back spontaneously. Any pain will usually ease as the disc stops pressing on the affected nerve.

It usually takes four to six weeks to recover from a slipped disc. Most people will need to do some gentle exercises and may need to take painkilling medication.

Keeping active

It is very important that you keep active if you have a slipped disc.

Initially, it may be difficult to move around and if you are in severe pain, you may need to rest completely for the first couple of days.

However, after this period, you should start to move around as soon as you can. This will keep your back mobile and speed up your recovery.

You should ensure that any exercise you do is gentle and does not put a strain on your back. Swimming is an ideal form of exercise because the water supports your weight and it puts very little strain on your joints.

Movement and exercise will also help to strengthen any muscles that have become weak. Avoid any activities that could aggravate your condition such as those that involve:

  • reaching
  • lifting
  • sitting for a prolonged period of time

Physiotherapy

As part of your treatment programme, you may be referred to a physiotherapist. Physiotherapists are healthcare professionals who use physical methods, such as massage and manipulation.

A physiotherapist will be able to draw up an individually tailored exercise plan for you. This will keep you active, minimise pain and help prevent any further damage to your back.

Read more about physiotherapy.

Osteopathy and chiropractic

Some people choose to try osteopathy or to see a chiropractor. Both types of therapy are used to treat back pain.

Osteopathy and chirpractic are not widely available on the NHS and you will usually have to pay for treatment  privately.

Read more about osteopathy and chiropractic.

Medication

You may be prescribed a number of different medicines to help ease any painful symptoms of a slipped disc. These are outlined below. 

Analgesics

Analgesics are painkillers, such as paracetamol. They are available over-the-counter from pharmacies, or on prescription.

Always read the manufacturer's instructions before using analgesics.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofendiclofenac and naproxen, can help relieve pain and reduce any inflammation.

NSAIDs may not be suitable for people with hypertension (high blood perssure), asthmaheart failure, or kidney failure. Again, you should always read the manufacturer's instructions before use.

Read more about NSAIDs.

Codeine

Codeine is a stronger painkiller that is often taken in combination with paracetamol. It is usually only prescribed when other painkillers and NSAIDs have not worked.

Codeine can cause side effects, such as constipation (an inability to empty your bowels).

Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are a type of medication that contain hormones (powerful chemicals that have a wide range of effects on your body). They may be injected into your lower spine to help reduce inflammation.

Read more about corticosteroids.

Muscle relaxants

You may be prescribed a muscle relaxant, such as diazepam, to take for a few days if your back or leg muscles are very tense.

Surgery

Surgery is required in about 1 in 10 cases of a slipped disc. It may be considered if:

  • there is evidence of severe nerve compression
  • your symptoms have not improved using other treatments
  • you are having difficulty standing or walking
  • you have very severe symptoms, such as progressive muscle weakness or altered bladder function

The aim of surgery is to cut away the piece of the disc that bulges out. This is known as a discectomy and it can be done in several ways.

Some of these procedures are explained in more detail below.

Open discectomy

An open discectomy is a procedure to remove part or all of the slipped disc. It will be carried out under anaesthetic (painkilling medication).

An incision is made in your spine and the disc is removed. For more information about this type of surgery, see the lumbar decompressive surgery topic.

Prosthetic intervertebral disc replacement

Prosthetic intervertebral disc replacement involves having a prosthetic (artificial) disc inserted into your back to replace the slipped disc.

An incision is made in your spine and the damaged disc is either partially or completely removed. A replacement disc is then inserted into the space.

One study found that 87% of people felt their quality of life had improved three months after having a prosthetic intervertebral disc replacement. However, as the procedure is still quite new, long-term results are not yet available.

Endoscopic laser discectomy

During endoscopic laser surgery, a small incision will be made to gain access to the spine and an endoscope will be used to view the disc. An endoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a light and camera at one end.

The procedure is performed under either local anaesthetic or general anaesthetic, depending on where in your spine your slipped disc is. 

After the incision has been made, the compressed nerve that is causing you pain will be released and part of your disc will be removed with a laser.

A study has found that 67% of people could move around more easily six months after having endoscopic laser surgery, and around 30% needed less pain relieving medication. Around 2-4% of people needed another operation.

Another study reported that after having endoscopic laser surgery, on average, people returned to work after seven weeks. 

As endoscopic laser surgery is still a relatively new procedure, it is often only performed with special arrangements - for example, as part of a clinical trial (a type of medical research that tests one type of treatment against another). 

Recovery

For most people with severe symptoms of a slipped disc, back surgery helps to ease their symptoms.

You will usually be able to return to work after two to six weeks. However, the surgery does not work for everyone, and you may need to have further operations and treatment if the initial surgery is not effective.

Possible complications resulting from surgery may include:

  • infection
  • nerve injury
  • haemorrhage (severe bleeding)
  • temporary dysaesthesia (impaired sense - for example, losing the sense of touch)

Before having surgery, you should ask your surgeon whether you are at risk of developing complications and how long it will take to recover. You may be given a rehabilitation programme to follow.

One review of a number of studies found that exercise programmes which started four to six weeks after surgery on the lumbar spine (lower back), helped to decrease pain and improve a person's ability to function

Read more about the risks of lumbar decompressive surgery and recovering from lumbar decompressive surgery.

Medical Review: April 01, 2012
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