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Disc prolapse:

Written by Healthwords's team of doctors and pharmacists based in UK | Updated: 17.02.2023 | 3 min read
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Disc prolapse describes the sudden onset of pain as a result of a problem with an intervertebral disc in the spine. Disc prolapse is characterized by the sudden onset of pain that can be severe. Disc prolapse can cause pain in the back or neck, numbness, tingling, weakness in arms or legs, muscle spasms, and muscle weakness.

What is actually causing the pain?

The spine consists of bones (vertebrae) that are stacked upon one another. Each vertebra is connected to the other by an intervertebral disc. The intervertebral discs help increase the flexibility of the spine and function as shock absorbers. Each individual intervertebral disc consists of a tough outer fibrous layer surrounding a jelly-like inner layer.

A disc prolapse, or slipped disc, can describe a tear of the outer fibrous layer of the intervertebral disc with or without protrusion of some of the inner gelatinous layer. In a disc prolapse, a tear of the outer fibrous layer can cause significant pain that is usually localized to the neck or back, depending upon which disc is involved. If there is also a bulging of the inner gelatinous layer that irritates or compresses one of the nerves around the spine, this can result in significant pain, numbness, weakness, or tingling that extends into a limb. This is most often seen in the legs and is commonly referred to as sciatica.

Disc prolapse can occur following a specific injury or episode of heavy lifting. More commonly, however, disc prolapse occurs as a result of age-related wear and tear. As we age, our intervertebral discs become stiffer and are more at risk of rupturing.

How long am I going to be in this pain?

In most instances, the pain from a disc prolapse gets better on its own and does not require any treatment. More than 9 out of 10 people with a disc prolapse will improve within six weeks.

Occasionally, if a disc prolapse is very large or in certain locations, it can cause compression of the spinal cord or certain important nerves. In these rare instances, more urgent investigation and treatment may be required.

When should I see my doctor?

You should seek urgent medical attention if you develop severe neck or back pain following an injury. If your symptoms have any of the following associated features, you should also seek urgent medical attention:

  • Numbness or weakness that extends down both arms or both legs
  • Numbness around your genitals or bottom
  • Loss of control of your bowels or bladder
  • Fevers or feeling generally unwell

If you do not have any of the above features, you should see your doctor if your symptoms have failed to improve after six weeks or if they are associated with swelling, pain worse at night, or recent unintentional weight loss.

What will your doctor do?

The doctor will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. In the absence of any concerning features, you may be given advice regarding exercises to help relieve your symptoms in addition to simple pain medications. You may be referred to a physiotherapist, depending upon the local services available.

On occasion, depending upon your symptoms and your examination, you may be sent for further investigations, which can include blood tests, X-Ray, or MRI scans. If you have any concerning symptoms or features on examination, your doctor may send you to the hospital for further investigation and treatment.

A disc prolapse gets better in 9 out of 10 people without requiring treatment. If your symptoms do not improve, you may be referred to a spinal surgeon. Further treatments available for disc prolapse include injections to relieve your pain or surgery to remove the prolapsed disc.

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