Whether they’re called slipped discs, herniated discs or ruptured discs, this highly common spine condition encompasses one fact: a disc in the vertebrae has been displaced or is partially protruding. But beyond that, myriad myths and misconceptions exist about slipped discs, according to Kaixuan Liu, MD, PhD, founder and president of Atlantic Spine Center.
With 23 discs in the spine that act as “shock absorbers” between vertebrae, perhaps it’s not surprising that something might go awry to knock one or more of these discs out of their designated spaces. More than 3 million cases of slipped discs are diagnosed in the United States each year, typically in people over 40, according to the Mayo Clinic. But despite their prevalence, the condition is widely misunderstood, explains Dr. Liu, who is fellowship-trained in spine surgery.
“Misinformation abounds about many back problems, especially slipped discs,” Dr. Liu says. “But perhaps the biggest problem with these falsehoods is that they can keep people from understanding the truth about their spine condition and getting proper care.”
With that in mind, Dr. Liu highlights the 5 biggest myths and misconceptions about slipped discs and explains truth vs. fiction:
Myth: Slipped discs are always caused by injury
Fact: Genes often share the blame with injury, along with natural wear and tear
A genetic predisposition to slipped discs is typically at play when one occurs, according to Dr. Liu. For those who suffer one, it may seem that a sudden movement such as lifting or throwing “caused” the problem, but often a combination of a weakened outer disc layer and a specific activity leads to the herniation.
“Although something specific seemed to make the slipped disc occur, I tell patients it was probably going to eventually happen anyway,” he says.
Myth: Slipped discs always cause pain
Fact: They can be painful, but not necessarily
It makes sense that a bulging or ruptured spinal disc would cause pain when pressing upon surrounding nerves, but pain doesn’t always result, Dr. Liu notes. “Part of it depends on which nerves are being impinged, and part depends on the patient himself,” he says. “The fact is, large numbers of patients with disc problems have no symptoms. And even when there is pain, it often lessens over time.”
Myth: A slipped disc is an emergency
Fact: Only rarely is this the case
Even when pain results from a slipped disc, only rarely does the condition present a true medical emergency. Patients who experience progressive leg weakness within hours or days, a loss of bowel or bladder function, or pain severe enough to keep them from walking may be experiencing a rare but serious condition known as Cauda equina syndrome, which can lead to permanent nerve damage and even paralysis, Dr. Liu says.
“In this case, a patient’s slipped disc is pressing on the bundle of nerves at the tip of the spinal cord, causing swelling and nerve death,” he explains. “Cauda equina syndrome is rare, but these symptoms must not be ignored.”
Myth: Slipped discs require surgical repair
Fact: The vast majority of slipped discs improve with non-surgical treatments
Slipped discs will often improve on their own, and “conservative,” non-surgical treatments can hasten this process, Dr. Liu says. These remedies include over-the-counter and prescription anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers; cortisone injections administered by a physician; physical therapy; heat or ice; and muscle relaxants.
“Time is often the biggest fix for a herniated disc,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, slipped discs get better without surgery.”
Myth: Only open-back surgery is available for slipped discs
Fact: Minimally invasive surgery is quicker, safer and very effective
When someone tells you a slipped disc can only be repaired with open-back surgery, which uses a long incision and often requires hospitalization, they’re wrong, Dr. Liu says. In most cases, herniated discs can be tackled on an outpatient basis with minimally invasive surgical techniques, which involve a tiny incision and a rapid recovery.
Using microscopes and surgical tools that gently open the area over the affected disc, surgeons remove the offending disc material that’s pressing on surrounding nerves. “This same-day procedure leaves patients able to walk out hours later and lessens pain levels, blood loss and the risk of infection,” Dr. Liu says.
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