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Slipped disc - What is a slipped disc?

BMJ Group Medical Reference


A slipped disc can give you very bad back pain. You may feel you can't do the things you usually do, but staying active may help you recover more quickly. Most people get better on their own, but if your back pain doesn't go away surgery can help.

We've brought together the best research about slipped disc and weighed up the evidence about how to treat it. You can use our information to talk to your doctor and decide which treatments are best for you.

A slipped disc can be very painful. It means one of the discs in your spine has been damaged and may be pressing on a nerve.

The good news is that pain from a slipped disc generally gets better on its own within about six weeks.[1]

Here, we look at what happens when a disc in the lower part of your back is damaged.

Key points about slipped discs

  • A slipped disc can cause severe back pain.

  • Most people who have a slipped disc also get sciatica. This is a sharp, stabbing pain that runs down through one buttock and into one of your legs. It happens if the disc presses on a nerve.

  • Slipped discs are not very common. Only about 1 in 25 people who have pain in their lower back caused by a physical problem have a slipped disc.[1]

  • Although it can be painful, a slipped disc isn't usually dangerous. It will probably get better on its own.[2]

  • Surgery can help, but it's worth waiting a while to see if you get better without it.[2]

We've called this condition slipped disc because that's what most people know it as, even though the disc hasn't really 'slipped' at all. Doctors call this condition a herniated disc. You may also hear people call it a ruptured disc or a disc prolapse.

What is a disc?

herndisc-spine-normal1-uk_default.jpgDiscs are part of your backbone, which is also called your spine. They are round pads of spongy tissue. Each disc has a tough outer ring and a soft, jelly-like centre.

  • The discs lie between your vertebrae. The vertebrae are the 33 bones that make up your spine.

  • Each vertebra is linked to the next one by small joints that lock together. They are called facet joints. You can bend and twist your spine because of these joints.

  • The discs cushion the bones in your spine and stop them being damaged when you jump or run.

  • Discs also allow the bones in your spine to give when you move. This means you can bend over, arch your back, and twist your body.

Your spinal cord

As well as supporting your body, your spine also carries a bundle of nerves running from your brain to the base of your back. This is called the spinal cord.

  • The bones that make up your spine have holes in the centre. The holes make a tunnel all the way down your back. This is where your spinal cord fits.

  • Nerves coming out of the bottom of your spinal cord carry messages between your legs and your brain. Other nerves pass through small openings between the bones in your spine. These nerves branch off to every part of your body.

Your sciatic nerves
1 | 2 | 3 | 4
Last Updated: August 15, 2013
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.
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