Slipped disc

A slipped disc is when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine pushes out. It’s painful if it presses on nerves. It usually gets better slowly with rest, gentle exercise and painkillers.

Check if it’s a slipped disc

A slipped disc (also called a prolapsed or herniated disc) can cause:

  • lower back pain - the most common symptom
  • numbness or tingling in your shoulders, back, arms, hands, legs or feet
  • neck pain
  • problems bending or straightening your back
  • muscle weakness
  • pain in the buttocks, hips or legs if the disc is pressing on the sciatic nerve (sciatica)

Not all slipped discs cause symptoms. Many people will never know they have slipped a disc.

Other causes of back pain

Sometimes the pain may be a result of an injury such as a sprain or strain, but often there’s no obvious reason. Back pain is rarely caused by anything serious.

How you can ease the pain yourself

Keep active

If the pain is very bad, you may need to rest at first. But start gentle exercise as soon as you can - it will help you get better faster.

The type of exercise isn’t important - just gradually increase your activity level.

Take painkillers

Use painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol (children under 16 shouldn’t take aspirin). Take them regularly (the recommended daily amount), not just when the pain is particularly bad. This will help you to keep moving.

Paracetamol on its own isn’t recommended for back pain.

Your pharmacist can help with a slipped disc

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen aren’t suitable for everyone. Speak to a pharmacist if you’re not sure.

Stronger painkillers containing codeine may help for pain that has just started. But these types of painkillers can cause addiction and should only be used for a few days.

See a GP if:

  • your painkillers aren’t helping
  • the pain is no better after 1 month

See a GP urgently or go to A&E if you have back pain and you:

  • have numbness around your bottom or genitals
  • can’t pee
  • lose feeling in one or both legs
  • can’t control when you pee or poo
  • have a high temperature (fever) of 38C or above
  • have unexplained weight loss
  • have a swelling in your back
  • notice the pain is worse at night
  • got it after a serious accident, such as a car accident

What happens at your appointment

Your GP will usually be able to tell if you have a slipped disc from your symptoms.

You may also have a physical examination. Your GP might ask you to raise your arms, or do simple leg exercises, to find out where the slipped disc is.

Treatment from your GP

Your GP might prescribe a stronger painkiller, a steroid injection or a muscle relaxant to use in the short term.

If your symptoms don’t get better they might recommend further tests like an MRI scan.

Your GP might also refer you to a physiotherapist. If the waiting list for an NHS physio appointment is too long you can pay for it yourself.

Surgery for a slipped disc

Surgery isn’t usually needed, but your GP might refer to you a specialist to discuss surgery if your symptoms:

  • haven’t improved using other treatments
  • include worsening muscle weakness, or numbness

Alternative treatments for slipped disc

There’s some evidence that manual therapies like osteopathy can help ease lower back pain.

You’ll usually have to pay for this treatment privately.

What causes slipped disc

They can happen because of:

  • ageing
  • exercising too hard
  • lifting heavy objects the wrong way
  • vibration - from driving or operating machinery
  • being inactive or overweight

To help prevent slipped discs

Do

Don’t

  • smoke - nicotine weakens the disc tissue

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.