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
  • 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'll help you get better faster.

The type of exercise is not important, just gradually increase your activity level.

Take painkillers

Alternate painkillers such as ibuprofen and paracetamol. Paracetamol on its own is not recommended for back pain.

Take them regularly (up to the recommended daily amount) rather than just when the pain is particularly bad. This will help you to keep moving.

A pharmacist can help with a slipped disc

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

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

See a GP if you have back pain and:

  • your painkillers are not helping
  • the pain is no better after a month
  • a very high temperature or you feel hot and shivery
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a swelling in your back
  • the pain is worse at night

Call 999 or go to A&E if you have back pain and:

  • numbness around your bottom or genitals
  • cannot pee
  • lose feeling in 1 or both legs
  • cannot control when you pee or poo
  • 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 a GP

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

If your symptoms do not get better, your GP might recommend further tests, like an MRI scan.

They might also refer you to a physiotherapist. Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Surgery for a slipped disc

Surgery is not usually needed, but your GP might refer to you a specialist to discuss surgery if your symptoms:

  • have not 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

  • do not smoke – nicotine weakens the disc tissue
[Last reviewed 2018-01-17]