Disc prolapse & Sciatica


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What is disc prolapse (slipped disc)?

A disc prolapse - also known as a herniated disc - refers to cases in which the soft cushion of tissue that lies between the bones in the spine pushes out. Sciatica is one of the main symptoms of a disc prolapse and occurs when the disc presses against a nerve.

A disc is comprised of a tough outer section and a gelatinous inner part - the slipping or herniation refers to when the inner portion protrudes through the outer ring. The numbness and pain which is felt if the disc presses on the nerve that then forms the sciatic nerve - which runs from the lower back down to below the knee - is known as sciatica.

What causes a disc prolapse & sciatica?

As outlined above, a disc prolapse occurs when the inner portion of the disc protrudes through the outer ring. This can happen due to ageing or performing certain motions such as lifting a large or heavy object or twisting. As such, people with occupations which demand a lot of heavy lifting can be at an increased risk of a prolapsed disc. Other risk factors include obesity, smoking and poor muscle conditioning.

Sciatica can be caused by a prolapsed disc, but it should be noted that there are several other possible causes of sciatica, including lumbar spinal stenosis, degenerative disc disease, spondylolisthesis, piriformis syndrome and pregnancy.

Symptoms of prolapsed disc & sciatica

Common symptoms of a prolapsed disc include; a tingling or burning feeling down the leg; pain in the leg; hip pain; lower back pain; inhibited range of movement in the leg or foot; a constant pain in one buttock; and a shooting pain which can make standing difficult.

Treatment options for slipped disc & sciatica

Conservative treatments for a slipped disc include; an exercise programme which focuses on strengthening and stretching the muscles in the back region; staying as active as possible; choosing low impact activities such as walking or swimming and pain relieving medications. On occasions targeted nerve root injections can also help settle the nerve pain down.

Surgery can be advised for cases in which the treatments above have proven ineffective, and if the prolapsed disc has affected muscle function. Possible procedures include a microdiscectomy, spinal fusion, or laminectomy.

For cases in which surgery is judged to be the best option, the two procedures typically used are; discectomy, in which the surgeon removes whatever is pressing on the nerve; and a laminectomy, in which the surgeon removes the ring of bone which covers the spinal cord (lamina) to prevent it from causing pain.

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