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The spinal discs sit between, and separate, each segment (or vertebra) of the spine. Although it is a commonly used expression, discs don’t actually ‘slip’ but if weakened they can begin to bulge or herniate. This bulging can cause both local and referred pain.
A slipped disc most commonly affects the neck or lower back.
Slipped disc in the neck
A slipped disc in the neck will usually produce intense local neck pain. If more severe and pinching a nerve, it can also cause pain into the back of the shoulder blade or down the arm. A slipped disc in the neck may result from poor posture, muscle imbalance or weakness, repetitive strain or neck injury (e.g. from a blow to the head). Pro-inflammatory diets (diets high in sugar, bad fats and processed foods) or diets deficient in important nutrients for soft tissue healing such as protein, vitamin C and magnesium can also predispose to disc injury.
Slipped disc in the lower back
A slipped disc in the lower back can cause intense pain in the back or, if pinching a nerve, can also cause numbness or pain into the buttock(s) or down the leg(s). In severe cases, patients may have difficulty walking due to the leg giving way or being unable to lift the foot. Increased time spent sitting, working with vibrating machinery and repetitive motions (especially repeated forward bending) are all associated with an increased risk of lower back disc injury.
Nerves from the neck travel to individual parts of the shoulder and arm. Nerves from the lower back travel to individual areas of the legs and feet. This means that, if pinched, different nerves will produce different signs and symptoms. Neurological testing (testing of reflexes, strength and sensation etc.) can therefore be performed to identify if a slipped disc is present and, if so, at which level. In some cases further imaging may be required. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is usually most useful in this regard as it can detect soft tissue damage like disc injury.
In the large majority of cases slipped discs (in both the neck and lower back) can be successfully treated with conservative care without the need for injections or surgery. Spinal manipulation, soft tissue work, traction and exercise rehabilitation are effective in 95% of slipped discs cases.
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