Slipped disc

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Slipped discs are when the soft pads of tissue between the bones of your spine move out of place. These discs can press on nerves and cause severe pain. Most slipped discs get better with gentle exercise and painkillers. Read on to discover the symptoms and treatments.

What is a slipped disc?

The soft discs of tissue between the bones of your spine act as cushioning and shock absorbers when we move. They’re normally held in place by the ligaments connecting your spinal bones and the surrounding muscle. Sometimes a disc can move out of place and this is called a slipped disc. This disc can then push on the spinal nerves causing pain and other symptoms.

You might hear a slipped disc also being referred to as a bulged, herniated or ruptured disc.

What are the symptoms and signs of a slipped disc?

Symptoms vary depending on where the disc is in your spine and what, if any, structures it is pushing on. In some cases it can cause no pain at all. 

Symptoms you may experience include:

  • Pain in your spine

  • Numbness or tingling in your back, arms, shoulders, hands, legs, or feet

  • Weakness of muscles

  • Difficulty moving your back

  • Shooting pain in your bottom, hips, or legs

A slipped disc in your back is more likely to cause weakness and sensation changes in your legs, whereas a slipped disc in your neck is more likely to affect your arms.

How common is a slipped disc?

Slipped discs affect roughly 1% of adults every year and are most common in people aged 30-50.

What causes a slipped disc?

An injury can be enough to cause a slipped disc, linked to lifting heavy items or exercising too hard. There are also some risk factors that make slipped discs more likely, including:

  • Age – as you age the muscles and ligaments around your spine naturally become weaker, making slipped discs more likely.

  • Being a smoker – nicotine can weaken the tissue around your discs.

  • Genetics – if people in your family have experienced a slipped disc or have recurring slipped discs, then you might be more likely to have one too.

How is a slipped disc diagnosed?

A doctor can often tell if you have a slipped disc by asking about your symptoms and checking on your medical history.

They may also ask you to move your arms and legs to find out where the slipped disc is and if it’s affecting any nerves. 

If they suspect you have a slipped disc you may be referred, if your symptoms do not improve with time or are particularly severe, for an MRI scan to get a more accurate picture of the issue.

How do you treat a slipped disc?

Fortunately, the majority of people with slipped discs don’t need surgery. Most people recover within 6 weeks without treatment. Rest, gentle exercise and painkillers can all help.

Here is the following self-help advice:

  • Rest for 2-3 days, then introduce a little gentle exercise (as much as you can tolerate). The type of exercise you do doesn’t matter, as long as you start slowly and gently increase the amount you’re doing. Swimming can be very effective.

  • Avoid staying in bed for long periods as this can make your back pain worse.

  • Take painkillers like paracetamol and ibuprofen if you can – if you’re unsure, speak to a pharmacist or doctor. Take them regularly and not only when the pain is bad, as this can help keep you moving and stay on top of pain.  

The treatments a doctor may be able to offer include:

  • If your pain is bad, a doctor can offer a stronger painkiller. This type of medication should only be used for a short amount of time.

  • Steroid injections and muscle relaxant medications can also help in the short term.

If your symptoms aren’t improving, a doctor may send you for further tests such as an MRI scan. They can also refer you for physiotherapy or to a specialist to consider surgery if necessary.

When should I speak to a doctor about a slipped disc?

Although back pain can be stressful and uncomfortable, the cause is rarely anything serious. However, speak to a doctor if:

  • Painkillers aren’t helping with the pain

  •  You have a fever or feel shivery

  • The pain is worse at night

  • There’s swelling in your back

  • You have weakness in an arm or leg

  • Your symptoms don’t improve after a month

Go to A&E immediately if:

  • You have numbness or a strange sensation around your genitals and anus

  • You can’t control when you poo or pee

  • You lose feeling in one or both of your legs

How can Livi help with a slipped disc?

A Livi healthcare professional can discuss your symptoms and help to diagnose a potential slipped disc. They can also refer you for specialist care.

Frequently asked questions

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi