Slipped Disc: The Warning Signs
A disc is a shock-absorbing layer between each of the vertebrae in the spine. A slipped disc is caused by the gradual degeneration and softening of these discs.
When a disc ‘slips’, its soft core protrudes from its fibrous casing and presses on one of the nerves leading from the spinal cord to other parts of the body. This causes pain in the back, which can be extremely severe. If the disc presses on the sciatic nerve, the pain is felt in the leg, and is known as sciatica.
The warning signs
Most slipped discs occur in the lower back which is where the pain is mostly felt. The pain may also spread down around the buttocks and hips and along one or both legs.
The pain often starts suddenly just after you have lifted something heavy or have straightened up after bending. It might come after repetitive bending, as when you are washing a car with a bucket and sponge. Sometimes it comes on gradually.
The pain may be made worse by bending, getting up after sitting, coughing or straining. It is easier when lying flat, standing or walking.
The lower leg and the outer foot may also become numb.
What you should do
• Lie down on a firm flat bed which does not sag. If necessary, get somebody to put a wide board the full length of the bed under the mattress. On no account try to move anything heavy yourself.
• Take painkillers, such as aspirin or paracetamol, in the doses recommended on the container.
• A hot-water bottle or heat lamp applied to the painful area may give you relief.
• If the pain is not relieved after a day or two of rest, consult the doctor who may arrange physiotherapy. Some cases may require immobilisation in a plaster jacket or corset, or traction.
Manipulation may help but can be dangerous, and should be considered only after discussion with the doctor.
Many mild attacks of back pain get better after a few days of rest and then never recur. About 75 percent of more severe attacks recur within five years, but may then get better. However, in severe cases, your doctor may recommend a CT scan to discover if an operation is necessary to remove the slipped disc.
How to avoid a slipped disc
The best way to avoid back trouble is to keep your spine straight, particularly when lifting things.
Here are some examples of the wrong and the right ways of holding your spine.
Wrong A soft bed does not support the spine and can cause back pain. Even so, many people unwisely use a ‘comfortable’ mattress that sags in the middle.
Right It is essential to have a firm bed to support the spine. If you do have a soft bed, place a rigid board under the mattress. Get a timber merchant or DIY supermarket to cut a piece ofto the right size for your bed, or half the width of a double bed.
Wrong Do not try to lift a heavy, household object – such as a table or chest of drawers – by yourself.
Working in the garden
Wrong Do not bend from the hips with straight legs to pull out weeds. This movement, not the digging itself, is the most common cause of backache in the garden.
Right Go down on one or both knees as close to the weeds as possible to save stretching. This applies to picking up any object, not just weeding the garden.
Lifting an awkward object
Wrong Don’t bend and lean forward. When lifting anything out of a car boot, ease it onto the sill and then get close to it.
Right Squat by the object, with your feet about 300mm (12in) apart. Keep close to the load and pull it into your body while carrying.
Wrong When you are doing the shopping, don’t try to carry every-thing in one hand. The uneven weight will make you lopsided and put a strain on your spinal cord.
Right Put the shopping into two evenly weighted bags, and carry one in each hand so that you are properly balanced. If you have a long way to walk, take a rest occasionally. When you put the bags down, don’t bend forward; bend your knees until the bags rest on the ground.
PREVENTING AN ATTACK OF BACK PAIN
When you’re doing any work in a bent position, there is a simple exercise that can help to prevent back pain. Every now and again, stand up with your hands in the middle of your back. Bend back as far as you can, keeping the knees straight (right). Hold for a couple of seconds, and repeat several times.
Try to keep your back and abdomen muscles strong with regular exercise such as walking and swimming. Specific exercises include:
• Lie on your back and lift your head.
• Lie on your back and pull one knee toward the opposite shoulder with both hands.
• Lie face down and lift head and shoulders.
• Lie face down and lift one leg at a time.
Repeat each exercise several times.