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What is a Prolapsed Disc?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 05, 2024
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A prolapsed disc may also be called a slipped disk or a herniated disc. Those familiar with other hernias may understand this last term better. Hernia is often thought of as a bulging or extrusion of tissue, where it doesn’t belong. The prolapsed disc is similar, though it occurs in the discs of the spine.

The spine has special cushioning between each vertebra, and these are called discs. Discs have a soft center called the nucleus pulpous, and then a harder outer ring. Sometimes, that soft center breaks through the outer ring and extrudes out, which can put pressure on other structures in the spine like the nerves.

Depending on which disc has “slipped,” pain may be felt in numerous places. It can result in low back pain, and many prolapsed discs do occur in the lower back. People might also note pain in one or both legs. Pain felt can vary in severity and some people may not even be aware they have a prolapsed disc. Others are well aware of it and pain felt is extreme, and may occur suddenly.

Some forms of movement exacerbate discomfort, while lying down may ease it. This is certainly a condition that requires a doctor’s care. One rare complication may occur, called cauda equina syndrome, which includes severe pain and inability to urinate or have bowel movements. The area around the rectum may feel numb too. This is a medical emergency and needs immediate attention because permanent damage to the nerves feeding these areas can result without medical intervention.

Most people simply find themselves in pain, without having cauda equina syndrome. Only about 10% of people will require extreme measures like surgery to treat a prolapsed disc. In many cases the area of prolapse shrinks and improves within a few weeks after symptoms are first noted, and pain is not significant enough to consider surgery.

Basic treatments when a prolapsed disc is diagnosed are to pursue moderate activity per doctor’s recommendations, but to avoid any activities that appear to exacerbate pain. People may require pain medication, and some are helped by over the counter drugs like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Others may require stronger prescription medications that contain things like codeine. Some people are also helped with muscle relaxants or tranquilizers.

When pain persists beyond the six-week mark, or if the area of prolapse is significant there are surgeries that can treat this condition. Most surgeries simply remove the bulging area of the disc, and this treatment can be relatively effective. However, it does not always end pain or fully resolve the problem.

Slipped discs tend to occur most often in men. They are also most common in people between the ages of 30-50. Cause of them isn’t always clear, and it’s also not definitive that being in good physical health means avoiding them completely. Still, it’s important to remain in good shape, and do exercises that can strengthen the back muscles and the abdominal muscles. Though these may not prevent a prolapsed disc, they contribute to overall sound health.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

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Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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