Is it a slipped disc?
the pain first zip down an arm or leg, this is very often
the first question that leaps to mind. The answer
necessarily Yes. But why would it “slip?”
When you first feel that pain in the very lower part of your
back, the electric sensation in your calf, and that immobilizing
feeling that makes you want to drop to the floor—you
might want to heed your body’s request and lie down for
a moment. Then reach for this newsletter again, and recall
“Slipped discs” are often assumed to be the cause
of sciatica (pain down the leg), but they aren’t quite
as common as we think. For example, back pain and neck pain
are only rarely caused by disc problems. Still, this is not
to deny that discs can cause problems.
Discs are located between each level of the spinal column.
They consist of numerous layers of tough fibers surrounding
a semi-fluid core. They function, essentially, as shock absorbers.
And they do their job very well, for the most part. Over the
years, however, discs gradually lose their capacity to absorb
shock, and they start to break down, or degenerate. Smoking,
overweight, some repetitive physical tasks and positions, and
even heredity can speed up this degeneration. The disc may
start to bulge to one side (it doesn’t literally “slip.”)
If the disc material pushes in the direction of the spinal
cord and spinal nerves, these may become irritated. The resulting “nerve
pain” is often felt to shoot down an arm (if a disc in
the neck) or a leg (if the low back is involved)—the
classic pain of sciatica. More rarely, nerve compression can
also begin to cause muscle weakness.
While you’re lying down, by the way, I suggest you ice
the area for 10 minutes at a time, leaving 45 minutes to an
hour between applications. Many people choose to use heat instead,
but that may be counterproductive. You should NOT stay in bed
all day, and definitely not beyond two days. Try lying on your
stomach and easing yourself gently up onto your elbows for
a minute, several times a day, but only if it feels good.
You are probably still wondering whether this is a disc problem.
Recall that many types of pain that radiate along an arm or
leg are not disc-related. For example, a dull, vague pain in
the leg or arm is most often not a disc. If, on the other hand,
the limb pain gets suddenly sharper or shocklike with bending
forward, a disc may be involved. Unfortunately, there are exceptions
in both scenarios, and self-diagnosis can be unreliable. If
the pain is persistent or severe, it should be examined professionally.
Whether you are recovering from a disc problem, or are feeling
fine and simply want to prevent a problem, you can maintain
or improve the health of your spine and discs (and stay away
from doctors) by:
- not smoking;
- regularly getting moderate weightbearing exercise—especially
- losing weight if necessary
- changing positions at least every
30 minutes if your job or lifestyle is sedentary;
- using appropriate
lifting strategies if your job involves physical labor.
Always avoid the combination of bending,
lifting, and twisting.