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What Causes Slipped Discs?

A slipped disc, also called ruptured or herniated intervertebral disc, is a disorder affecting one or more of the intervertebral discs, or spongy plates that serve as cushions between the vertebrae of the spine. Each disc is made up of a central core of soft gelatinous substance, which is held in position by a ring of firm fibrous or connective tissue. In slipped disc the ring of fibrous tissue weakens and ruptures, permitting the gelatinous material to ooze out into the spinal canal.

The disc may rupture suddenly when a great strain or effort is being made, or the rupture may occur when a person sneezes or simply bends forward to tie his shoes. It may also occur without any evident stress or strain.

Slipped disc usually occurs in the lower spine, in the lumbar region, but occasionally it occurs in the cervical, or neck, region. The chief symptom is pain in the back, usually aggravated by bending, twisting,straining, coughing, or sneezing. Frequently the material that oozes from the disc presses on a nerve, causing various other symptoms. Most often, pressure is exerted on one of the roots of the sciatic nerve which runs down the back of the leg to the foot: Pain radiates from the buttock along the course of the nerve, and sometimes the affected leg is weakened or there is a numbness or tingling in the foot. If a disc ruptures in the neck region and presses on one of the nerves serving the arm, there is pain in the shoulder or arm. In addition, weakness or numbness often occurs in the hands or fingers on the affected side.

A patient with slipped disc is usually kept in bed, and a bed board is placed under the mattress to keep it firm. Heat is applied to the back, and often, drugs are given to relax muscle spasm. After a period of one to several weeks the pain usually subsides, and the patient is allowed gradually to resume his normal activities. He may be given physical therapy involving exercises and heat treatment for the back.

A few patients do not improve with bed rest, and an operation to remove the disc material may be necessary. In some cases it is also necessary to fuse the vertebrae in the injured region of the spine.

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