Description: Slipped disc is a common sports injury that occurs when the discs in the spinal column leak their content and compress a nerve. A slipped disc is a painful injury that can be limiting. Find out more about slipped discs here.

As a sportsman constantly engaging in physical activities, your risk of sustaining injuries is incredibly high. Overstretching your joints can lead to strains and sprains, a wrong move involving your ankles, and you’re out with Achilles tendinitis, and there is also the risk of contracting common infections from the gym. One of the most prevalent types of sports injuries occurs from spinal disc herniation. This injury, known as a slipped disc or herniated disc, can be really painful, chronic, and may need surgery to be corrected. Here, we explore all you need to know about the slipped disc and how you can prevent yourself from getting one

slipped disc

What is Slipped Disc?

Also known as a herniated disk (disc), ruptured, or bulging disk, a slipped disk (disc) is one of the most common causes of leg, back, and neck pain. Herniated disks typically recover on their own or with minimal at-home care

The spinal disc is the cushioning material between spinal bones called vertebrae. These discs make up a quarter of the height of the spinal column, act as shock absorbers, and allow spine movement. The spinal disc comprises two components: the annulus fibrosus and nucleus pulposus. The annulus fibrosus is the disc’s outer ring composed of layers of collagen and proteins called lamellae. The nucleus pulposus is the inner gel material surrounded by the annulus fibrosus. This ball-like gel is contained within the lamellae and is composed primarily of loose collagen fibers, water, and proteins.

As a person ages, the annulus fibrosis becomes weakened. Constantly lifting heavy objects also strains the annulus fibrosis, causing it to weaken. Over time, or due to injury, the annulus fibrosis may break, causing the nucleus pulposus to leak out of the annulus fibrosis. The gel may leak partially, causing the disc to bulge or leak fully. The leaked jelly then compresses the spinal cord or a spinal nerve in the region.

This condition where the disc becomes ruptured, bulgy, and leaky and compresses spinal nerves is known as a herniated disc, ruptured disk, or slipped disc. While a slipped disc may occur anywhere along the spinal column, the lower back and upper neck are the most commonly attacked regions.

As many as 2% of the global population suffer from a herniated disk annually, with the condition causing a large proportion of lower back pain cases. Depending on the spinal cord disk herniation area, numbness or tingling, weakness, or arm and leg pain results. Sciatica is a condition that results from compression of the sciatic nerve, causing pain, weakness, and numbness of one or both nerves.

Even though herniated disk can be excruciatingly painful, most patients report feeling significantly better after a few weeks or months of non-surgical treatment.

slipped disc

Risk Factors for Slipped Disks

Risk factors are conditions that increase your chance of getting a disease or injury. Being at risk for a condition does not necessarily mean that you will get it; rather, it means that compared to the average person, you’re more likely to get it.

There are several factors that increase the risk of getting a slipped disk. Some common ones include;

  • Age: The risk of getting a herniated disk is highest in persons between the ages of 20 and 50. This age category describes persons that are most active and most likely to lift heavy objects.
  • Gender: Men are more likely to suffer from a herniated disk than women. Again, this comes down to the fact that men are more likely to lift heavy objects, causing injury in their spinal columns.
  • Lifting Wrongly: Herniated disks can be caused by lifting weights using your back muscles rather than your legs. Your back may become more fragile if you twist while lifting. Using your legs rather than your back to lift could maintain your spine form.
  • Increased weight: The disks in your lower back are put under additional strain if you are overweight; reducing your weight helps to keep your lower back in check.
  • Repetitive Activities that Strain your Spine: Physical labor is required for many jobs. Some include repeated bending, twisting, lifting, and tugging. You can protect your back by lifting and moving with caution.
  • Frequent Driving: Your spine and disks may become compressed due to prolonged sitting and vehicle vibration.
  • Sedentary Lifestyle: The prevention of several illnesses, including a herniated disk, depends on regular exercise.
  • Smoking: Smoking decreases the oxygen flow to the disk, accelerating deterioration.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disk

Symptoms of a slipped disk may vary depending on the spinal cord region where the injury occurs and the spinal nerves that are compressed in the process.

lower back slipped disc

Herniated or slipped disk in the back (herniated lumbar disk)

The sciatic nerve is affected when slipped disk occurs in the lumbar spine. The sciatic nerve travels from the lower back, through the buttocks, and to both legs. Sciatic nerve compression results in a condition known as sciatica that presents with;

  • Lower back and leg pain.
  • Tingling or numbness in the legs and/or feet.
  • Muscle weakness.

In sciatica, leg pain is often far worse than back pain. Pain becomes more severe while stretching, standing, sitting, or walking.

Herniated disk in the cervical spine (herniated cervical disk)

When slipped disc occurs in the cervical vertebrae (part of the spinal column around the neck), it results in compression of the cervical nerves, resulting in a condition known as cervical radiculopathy

Cervical radiculopathy is a complex of multiple symptoms that include:

  • Pain between or close to the shoulder blades.
  • Sharp pain that travels to the shoulder, arm, and sometimes hands and fingers.
  • Neck pain, especially in the back and sides of the neck.
  • Pain that gets worse when bending or turning your neck.
  • Tingling or numb sensation in your arms.

Diagnosis and Tests

To ascertain that you have a herniated disk, your doctor will review your symptoms and medical history and then do a careful physical exam. Your level of discomfort, muscle reflexes, sensitivity, and muscular strength will be examined by your doctor to determine the extent of your symptoms.

In addition to physical examination, your doctor might request imaging tests like X-rays, CT scans, magnetic resonance imaging, and electromyogram (EMG) to rule out other causes of back or neck pain and to reveal the specific location of the herniated disk.

Treatment for Herniated Disk

A herniated disk will often gradually improve over a few days to a few weeks for most individuals. By 3 to 4 months, most patients usually no longer experience symptoms. On the other hand, some patients do go through painful phases while they heal. The treatment for herniated discs can be surgical or non-surgical, depending on the problem’s severity.

Non-surgical Treatment

Usually, non-surgical care is used as the first line of defense against herniated disks. Non-surgical therapy options involve:

  1. Rest: Back and leg discomfort are typically relieved by one to two days of bed rest. However, avoid remaining sedentary for too long. When you start activities again, make an effort to:
    • Take pauses for rest throughout the day, but try limiting your sitting time.
    • Be careful to move slowly and deliberately while exercising, especially while bending and lifting.
    • Alter your regular routines to prevent motions that could aggravate your pain.
  1. Pain medication: Using pain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, meloxicam, etc) may help relieve the pain and inflammation associated with herniated discs.
  2. Physical therapy: A physical therapist may work with you to help relieve pain and improve your range of motion.
  3. Epidural steroid injection: Short-term pain relief may be achieved by lowering inflammation with an injection of steroids (cortisone-like drugs) into the area surrounding the nerve.

There is solid evidence to support the claim that epidural injections can effectively treat pain in many people for whom other non-surgical treatments have failed after six weeks or longer.

Notably, the herniated disc is not healed by these non-surgical procedures. Instead, they can aid in symptom relief while your body is repairing the disk. Over time, the disc herniation gradually disappears and is reabsorbed by the body.

Surgical Treatment

Surgery is always not the first treatment option for patients with herniated discs. However, they are recommended when non-surgical treatment has failed to alleviate symptoms or in cases when a patient is exhibiting the following signs and symptoms:

  • Muscle weakness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Loss of bladder or bowel control

Pressure on the spinal cord and nerves can be relieved surgically using a variety of methods, such as:

  • A discectomy to get rid of protruding disc.
  • Laminectomy to widen the spinal canal by removing a portion of the bone surrounding the herniated disk.
  • Artificial disk surgery to insert an artificial disk in place of a damaged natural one.
  • Spinal fusion to fuse two or more vertebrae directly to strengthen the spine.

Are there any risks with surgery?

Every surgical treatment carries a small risk, including bleeding, infection, and anesthesia-related reactions.

The spinal cord is a very sensitive body part, and specific risks are associated with surgery in this region. These specific risks include;

  • Recurrent disk herniation
  • Nerve injury
  • Infection
  • Hematoma causing nerve compression
  • Need for further surgery
  • Tearing of the sac surrounding the nerves (dural tear)

Surgical Rehabilitation

To help you regain strength and flexibility in your back and legs, your doctor or a physical therapist may suggest a clear and simple walking program. During the initial weeks following surgery, you might not be allowed to bend, lift, or twist to lower the risk of a repeat herniation.

spinal disc herniation

Prevention of Slipped Disc

Herniated disks cannot always be prevented. However, you can lower your risk by doing the following:

  • Using proper lifting techniques: Don’t bend at the waist. Bend your knees while keeping your back straight: Use your strong leg muscles to help support the load.
  • Maintaining a healthy weight: Pressure from extra weight exerts strain on the lower back. Maintain a healthy weight at all times.
  • Practicing good posture: Learn how to stand, sit, walk, and sleep more uprightly. Your spine experiences less stress when you have good posture.
  • Stretching: If you frequently sit for extended periods, you must take stretching breaks.
  • Avoiding wearing high-heeled shoes: Your spine is thrown out of alignment when you wear high-heeled shoes.
  • Exercising regularly: To maintain your spine, concentrate on exercises that will develop your back and abdominal muscles.
  • Stopping smoking: Smoking can damage disks and increase the risk of disk rupture.
woman lower back

Conclusion

Herniated disks range from nigglingly uncomfortable to excruciatingly painful. Luckily, this condition is self-limiting and will often go without much treatment within a few weeks. Herniated disc more commonly affects the cervical or lumbar nerves, causing pain, weakness, and numbness in the regions supplied by the nerve. A slipped disc may be managed by non-surgical means such as physical therapy or surgery. Maintaining a healthy weight, good posture, and practicing proper lifting techniques will significantly reduce your chance of getting a slipped disc as a heavy lifter.

References

Spine Anatomy: Intervertebral Discs

Slipped (Herniated) Disc

Herniated Disk in the Lower Back