What is a slipped disc?
Marko Rupena/ShutterstockFrom too-high heels to poor nutrition, your back can start aching for any number of reasons—check out these surprising causes of low back pain. When the shock-absorbing discs in your vertebrae herniate or rupture, their gel-like center can press up against and irritate surrounding nerves. The result? You may feel significant pain. However, that's not a guarantee—many people don't have any symptoms.
Why do you have a slipped disc?
g-stockstudio/ShutterstockBlame the rigors of everyday life. As you age, the fluid in these discs begins to leak out, and they're prone to damage. As many as 5 percent of people will be saddled with this condition, and it's more common in men and people over age 30.
Your arm (or leg) hurts
9nong/ShutterstockBecause the disc can slip anywhere along the length of your spine, pain may affect other parts of your body—not just your back. "Depending on where the slipped disc is, you may get symptoms in your arm, along your trunk, or in your leg," says Irene Tien, MD, an emergency medicine physician with the Rowe Telemedicine Network.
One side of your body is cold
Africa Studio/ShutterstockThink you injured your upper back and possibly herniated a disc? When nerves are irritated, the symptoms may not show up as expected. In fact, it may come across as "burning, numbness, aching pain, or a strange sensation-like coldness along the trunk of your body, usually on one side," Dr. Tien describes.
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Your hands are numb
Alice Day/ShutterstockThe area where symptoms appear may provide a clue where the problem lies in your spine. For instance: Having issues typing? Hand numbness is a sign that your cervical spine (located in your neck) is the source of trouble, says Dr. Tien. "The nerves that give you sensation in your hands originate higher up in your spinal cord," she adds.
Alice Day/ShutterstockSlipped disc symptoms may also target your legs. "The nerve tracts that run within the spinal cord in the neck continue to the legs, which is why severe compression of the spinal cord can affect your legs, causing weakness or imbalances," says Kaliq Chang, MD, an interventional pain management specialist at the Atlantic Spine Center in West Orange, New Jersey.
Alice Day/ShutterstockIf a herniated disc in your lower back presses on your sciatic nerve, there's a risk of developing a condition called sciatica. Along with pain that can shoot through your leg, you may also lose feeling in your feet or toes, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Here are seven signs sciatica is the cause of your back pain.
It hurts to watch a funny show
LightField Studios/ShutterstockLaughter is supposed to be the best medicine—unless your back is involved. Coughing, laughing, or sneezing puts pressure on your abdomen, which can reverberate to your back, says Leda Ghannad, MD, assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rush University Medical Center.
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Pain gets worse when you rest
Andrey_Popov/ShutterstockYou might expect that lifting something heavy will hurt like crazy if you have a herniated disc. But sitting down to rest should be fine, right? Wrong: Pain while sitting—or bending forward—is a common symptom, says Dr. Ghannad.
Healing on your own is possible
Image Point Fr/ShutterstockDespite the pain and discomfort, the good news is that you'll likely heal on your own. In fact, 90 out of 100 people report that back pain disappears within six weeks, explains the U.S. National Library of Medicine. One reason? Your body may remove the tissue that's pressing on nerves on its own.
Do you need surgery for a slipped disc?
Syda Productions/ShutterstockYou probably don't need to visit a spinal surgeon to fix your problem. One study in BMJ Open found that after three months, patients with a lumbar disc herniation who received surgery or "conservative" treatments like physical therapy and painkillers felt equally better. The conclusion: Surgery may only be necessary if those conservative treatments don't work for you, or your back pain is so debilitating that you need rapid relief.
When a slipped disc is an emergency
Alice Day/ShutterstockMost of the time, a slipped disc is not an emergency. However, rarely the condition can trigger cause something called cauda equina syndrome: The disc compresses a group of nerves in the lower spine and unless you get emergency surgery, you could be at risk for incontinence. Call your doctor right away if pain and weakness impair your ability to function normally, if you have incontinence or bowel problems, or if you are numb in your inner thighs and back of legs, recommends the Mayo Clinic.
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Could it be something else?
YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/ShutterstockEven if you're sure you injured your back, you could be feeling pain from something else, such as a kidney infection, a kidney stone, a gastric ulcer, or acid reflux, Dr. Tien points out. If you have other symptoms, like a burning in your chest or difficulty swallowing (as with acid reflux) or nausea or vomiting (kidney stone symptoms), see your doctor. Here are some more kidney stone warning signs.
How to prevent a slipped disc
Dean Drobot/ShutterstockWhile aging makes you more prone to the problem, it doesn't mean it's inevitable. Smart lifestyle habits can protect your back, like exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and proper lifting technique—keep your back straight and upright and lift with your legs. Check out five exercises that buffer back pain.
Finally, quit smoking
AzriSuratmin/ShutterstockLighting up doesn't just affect your lungs and heart. Your spinal health is another reason to kick the habit. (Here are 23 brilliant ways to stop.) A study by Emory University researchers found that smoking can speed up damage to discs by impairing the function of blood vessels that provide nutrients to this area. It's one change that can help keep your back feeling good.