Slipped (herniated) disc

A slipped disc can go unnoticed, but also cause severe discomfort. The pain usually goes away within 6 weeks. Find out more about the causes and treatment of the condition here.

At a glance

  • Early signs of a slipped disc can be severe pain radiating down one leg and into the feet.
  • A slipped disc can also cause numbness or pins and needles.
  • These symptoms usually go away on their own after a few weeks.
  • So that the person with a slipped disc can stay active, these symptoms should be treated until the pain goes away.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Slipped disc: doctor showing a man the model of a spinal column.

What is a slipped disc?

Almost everyone is familiar with back pain, but usually it is hard to say what the exact cause is. But if you have pain that radiates down the leg and into the foot, it may be a sign of a slipped spinal disc, or “herniated disc”. The pain goes away within 6 weeks in most people.

Spinal discs consist of a gel-like center (nucleus pulposus) surrounded by an elastic casing made of cartilage and sit between the vertebral bodies of the vertebrae.

A slipped disc occurs if the spinal disc tissue pushes out, or “herniates”, between the vertebrae. This herniated tissue may irritate the neighboring spinal nerves and cause severe discomfort. But not every disc is painful.

What is a slipped disc?

The video below explains more about the causes of a slipped disc as well as the symptoms and treatment options.

This and other videos can also be found on YouTube

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What are the symptoms of a slipped disc?

A slipped disc can often cause sudden and severe shooting pain in the lower back. Another typical sign is pain radiating down one leg and into the foot, referred to as sciatica. It is mainly caused by slipped discs in the lumbar (lower back) region.

If it occurs in the neck area, the pain might radiate into the arms.

In rare cases, numbness in the buttocks or signs of paralysis may develop and these symptoms are signs of a more serious problem, like nerve damage.

Important: Studies show that a slipped disc doesn’t always lead to noticeable symptoms. The studies examined adults who didn’t have back pain using magnetic resonance imaging. More than 50 out of 100 of them had a bulging (herniated) spinal disc. About 20 out of 100 had a spinal disc that was already quite damaged or even had tissue coming out of it, without causing any pain.

What causes a slipped disc?

Spinal discs act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae in our spine. If a spinal disc is no longer able to bear the strain, it can result in a slipped disc. The associated pain probably arises when part of the spinal disc pushes against a nerve in the spinal cord.

How often does a slipped disc occur?

It is estimated that 1 to 5% of all people will have back pain caused by a slipped disc at some point in their lives. Slipped discs are more common in people over the age of 30, and are about twice as common in men as they are in women.

1 to 5% of the population will suffer from back pain caused by a slipped disc at some point in their lives.

How long does a slipped disc last?

For some people the pain can start very suddenly, and then disappear again by itself very quickly. Some people have permanent pain that lasts a long time, while others have it again and again. A slipped disc can therefore develop in very different ways.

The symptoms subside on their own within six weeks in about 90 percent of people with this problem. It is believed that the body gets rid of part of the prolapsed tissue or that it shifts position so that the nerves aren't irritated anymore. If the pain lasts longer than six weeks, it is unlikely that it will go away on its own.

How is a slipped disc diagnosed?

Doctor examining disc of man lying on his side on a bed.

Doctors are usually able to make a diagnosis by asking a few questions and performing a physical examination.

There are few good reasons for other complex diagnostic examinations. X-rays are therefore not very suitable because they often show disc damage in people who don’t have any symptoms. Imaging techniques may show a supposed cause of lower back pain that actually has nothing to do with the symptoms. This kind of misdiagnosis can then result in unnecessary treatment that may itself be harmful.

Imaging techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are only rarely needed, if any of the following occur:

  • signs of paralysis in one or both legs
  • impaired function of the bladder or bowel
  • unbearable pain despite treatment lasting many weeks
  • another condition is suspected to be causing the pain, for example a tumor

How is a slipped disc treated?

The focus is on providing pain relief treatment that can help people to cope with the symptoms, the aim being to stay as active as possible. But treating the pain doesn't speed up recovery. Even severe sciatic pain can usually go away on its own after a while. Surgery is seldom necessary.

Important: Surgery is required if the nerves are so severely affected that the bladder or the bowel is no longer functioning properly or paralysis occurs. If sciatic pain caused by a slipped disc lasts longer than six weeks, surgery may sometimes be an option to try to relieve the pressure on the affected nerve.

More detailed information about the subject, for example when spinal disc surgery is appropriate, can be found at:

Which rehabilitation measures can be of benefit?

Rehabilitation is an option for people who have been greatly affected by their back pain and are unable to work or perform other everyday activities. In addition to psychological support, rehabilitation programs primarily include certain movement exercises such as back school, strength training, stretching and relaxation exercises. The aim of the exercises is to improve the symptoms and restrictions, and strengthen the muscles in the torso in order to improve the stability of the spine.

In cooperation with the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (Institut für Qualität und Wirtschaftlichkeit im Gesundheitswesen) (IQWiG).

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