compass health clinic

Slipped discs: Why they don't slip, and why it matters

Have you ever heard someone talk about having a “slipped disc” in their back? It’s a common phrase used to describe back pain, but did you know that it’s not entirely accurate? Let’s dive into the fascinating world of spinal anatomy to understand why discs in your back can’t actually slip and why using this term may not be as helpful as you think.

First and foremost, let’s clarify what exactly we’re talking about when we refer to “slipped discs.” The term slipped disc is commonly used to describe a condition known as a herniated disc or a bulging disc. These terms refer to when the soft, jelly-like center of a spinal disc protrudes through a tear or weakness in the tough outer layer, causing irritation or compression of nearby nerves.

So why can’t discs in your back actually slip? The key lies in the structure of the spine. Your spine is made up of a series of vertebrae, bones that are stacked on top of each other and separated by intervertebral discs. These discs act as shock absorbers, providing cushioning and allowing for movement between the vertebrae.

The outer layer of each disc, called the annulus fibrosus, is made up of tough fibrous tissue, while the inner core, called the nucleus pulposus, is gel-like in consistency. These discs are firmly attached to the vertebrae above and below them by cartilage endplates.

Contrary to popular belief, these discs are incredibly strong and stable structures. They are firmly anchored to the vertebrae and are designed to withstand a significant amount of pressure and movement. In fact, it takes a considerable amount of force to cause a disc herniation or bulge. 

When a herniated or bulging disc occurs, it’s not that the disc has slipped out of place. Instead, a portion of the inner core has pushed through an area of the outer layer of the disc, which for some people can cause local nerves to become sensitive. For some, this can lead to symptoms such as localized back pain, radiating pain down the legs or arms, numbness, tingling, or weakness. However, what’s really important to know is that disc herniations happen all the time, and the vast majority of the time, we’re not even aware of it. The body can just adapt and ignore. And even when we do get symptoms, the recovery rate is extremely high, and people are back up and doing all the things they love after a few months. So no need to panic!

Understanding the true nature of disc herniations is important for several reasons. Firstly, using inaccurate terminology like “slipped disc” can lead to misunderstandings and misconceptions about the condition. It may perpetuate the idea that the disc is freely moving around in the spine, which is not the case. The term slipped disc implies instability, but it’s really important to know that your back is still incredibly strong, even with a slipped disc. In fact the best thing you can do is to try and keep moving where possible, within what I like to call, comfortably uncomfortable ranges of movement. 

Secondly, by understanding that discs can’t actually slip, individuals with back pain can make more informed decisions about their treatment options. There are various conservative and interventional treatments available for managing disc herniations, including physical therapy, medication, spinal injections, and in severe cases, surgery. Knowing the true nature of the condition can empower individuals to seek appropriate care and make lifestyle changes that can help alleviate their symptoms. 

Lastly, understanding the anatomy of the spine and the mechanics of disc herniations can help you know what to do in the future. By knowing that your spine is robust and strong, even with a slipped disc, you can feel confident that you can get back to doing all the things you love doing. If you feel at all unsure about what you can and cannot do, then speak to a healthcare professional who can provide you with the most appropriate advice, or feel free to book an appointment with us.

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