You might have heard a friend say that they have "slipped a disk." Or, you may have slipped a disk yourself during an overly strenuous workout, or by straining while lifting something heavy. A slipped disk can be painful, so painful, in fact, that you can barely move. But what exactly is a slipped disk? And what can you do about it if you have one?
This is your spine. In between the bones, which are called vertebrae, are little cushioning disks. These disks not only allow you to bend and move but also prevent your bones from rubbing against each other.
Sometimes an injury can push a disk out of place, producing a bulge. This bulge is called a herniated disk. Or, a disk may break open. When a disk moves, it puts pressure on nearby nerves, and that's when you start to feel pain. Most slipped disks are found in the lower back or lumbar region, although you can also have one in your neck, or cervical region.
When you have a slipped disk, you'll hurt, but often just on one side of your body. If the disk is in your lower back, you may feel a sharp pain in one part of your leg, hip, or buttocks. Your leg may also feel weaker than usual. If the disk is in your neck, the pain and numbness can stretch all the way from your neck down to your shoulder and arm. You may notice that it hurts even more when you stand for a long period of time, or if you sneeze, cough, or laugh.
So, how do you treat a slipped disk?
First your doctor will want to make sure that you actually have a slipped disk. To find out, the doctor will check your muscle strength, feeling, and reflexes, and have you move in different ways, for example, by bending, standing, and walking. You may also have a scan to find the exact location of the slipped disk.
While bed rest was once the standard therapy for low back pain, studies show that for most people it does not help and may even make the situation worse. Rapid return to healthy normal activity is usually best, being careful not to put too much stress on the back. While you're doing that, you can take medicines like ibuprofen or aspirin to relieve the pain. Muscle relaxants may also help. Acupuncture, massage, and yoga have also been shown to be affective in some studies. Physical therapy may be helpful after the first two or three weeks. It can help strengthen the muscles of your spine, and teach you how to move properly so you don't injure yourself again.
If these measures don't help, your doctor may suggest getting steroid injections into the area where you slipped the disk, to reduce pain and relieve swelling. As a last resort when all other treatments have failed, you may have a surgery called a diskectomy to remove the damaged disk.
You may be in pain now, but don't despair, with treatment it should ease. Realize that it may take a few months before you're back to your old self. Don't try to overdo it by bending or doing any heavy lifting. You'll just wind up back on your couch, hurting again.
Review Date: 2/19/2016
Reviewed By: Laura J. Martin, MD, MPH, ABIM Board Certified in Internal Medicine and Hospice and Palliative Medicine, Atlanta, GA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.