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Slipped Disk in Athletes

Joe Fleming provides an overview of a slipped disc: symptoms, causes, classification, treatment and prevention.

Lower back pain is one of the most common reasons why competitive athletes miss training and playing times. Regardless of age, this symptom is usually caused by degenerative diseases such as spondylosis and structural abnormalities such as spinal stenosis and lumbar disk herniation (LDH). Research has shown although LDH has a potential to end an athlete's career, strict adherence to recommended surgical and nonsurgical management can still lead to a promising clinical outcome.[1]

Understanding a Slipped Disk

A slipped disk is often the term used for a herniated disk or a spinal disk herniation. It most commonly occurs on the lower back and is characterized by a debilitating pain that might travel to the neck, arms, or legs. The condition, however, can sometimes be relieved with nonsurgical means.

In between the spinal vertebrae are jelly-like spinal disks that are protected by elastic casings. These work like shock absorbers that protect the vertebrae with each and every movement.  A slipped disk happens when it ruptures and push out of the spine, thus resulting in a herniated disk. The ruptured disk adds more pressure and friction on the spinal nerves that might result in painful, uncomfortable, and unpleasant sensation in your back.

People between the ages of 30 to 50 years old are more prone to slipped disk but the ratio between men and women suffering from this condition is 2:1. Five to 20 people per 1000 adults develop slipped disk but some might not experience any symptoms.[2]

Common Symptoms of a Slipped Disk

The most common symptom of a slipped disk is back pain that could restrict your movements. Although some people do not manifest this symptom, there might still be some bulging in the disks that can be seen through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) only.

The pain caused by a slipped disk can radiate through the arms and legs that worsens when you cough or sneeze. It is most intense, however, around the buttocks and thighs, or in the shoulders and neck region.

The quality and timing of the pain might also be different for every person. It could appear so suddenly just as it disappears quickly. It might also gradually develop, trigger on and off, or last for weeks without actually letting up.  

Sometimes, a person might also experience numbness, tingling sensation, weakness, and loss of reflexes of the limbs because of a slipped disk. In severe cases, other people might also suffer from uncomfortable bowel movements or poor bladder control, which actually require immediate medical attention or surgery.[3]

Causes and Classification of a Slipped Disk

Some of the common causes of a slipped disk include:

  • Wear and tear. The elasticity of the spinal disks diminishes with age.
  • Accidents or injury. A direct blow to the back can cause the disk to herniate or rupture.
  • Overweight or obesity. Carrying extra weight puts extra pressure on the spine and the vertebrae of the lower back.
  • Occupational hazard. For people who do repetitive movements like bending, pulling or twisting as in the case of professional athletes or dancers.

Once diagnosed, doctors may classify the severity of a slipped disk as either a protrusion, extrusion, or sequestration.

  • Protrusion means that the bulge on the disk is in the vertebrae and does not affect the outermost layers.
  • Extrusion means that there is a tear in the outermost layer, which results in the tissues herniating, while still attached to the disk.
  • Sequestration means that the spinal disk tissue has broken off, no longer directly attached to the disk, and might be present in the spinal canal.

A slipped disk can also be linked to sciatica. Some 5 to 10% of people complaining of lower back pain have sciatica due to ageing, stress, strenuous activities, driving, smoking and weight gain.[4]

How to Treat and Manage a Slipped Disk

The treatment options for a slipped disk depend on the severity of the rupture or displacement. Sometimes, simply doing exercises and stretches at home regularly can already correct the problem, especially if it is only a protrusion.

Dealing with the pain might entail laying off heavy lifting and intense training for a few weeks, so you might want to inform your coach and teammates about your training adjustments until the health problem heals. Your spine, however, can still gain some benefits from low-impact activities such as walking.

Back pain can be managed by taking anti-inflammatory medications or muscle relaxants. There is not one drug, however, that experts attest to actually work 100% during recovery. Usually, the prognosis of healing from a slipped disk depends on your body's coping mechanisms.

At home, applying an ice pack to the affected area helps to provide pain relief from inflammation. Wearing a back brace can also offer additional spinal stability and support to help you perform your daily tasks.

For more severe cases, a doctor might recommend surgery to either remove the disk, attach an artificial one, or fuse the vertebrae together (spinal fusion) to maintain the stability of your spine. Generally, people respond well to conservative remedies in a matter of six weeks. For patients who need surgery, however, rehabilitation will entail six weeks to 12 months, including physical therapy.[5]

Tips to Prevent a Slipped Disk

Back pain problems, though common, can be prevented through the following measures:

  • Always be conscious of your movement when you are doing physical activities, bending or lifting.
  • Be conscious of body cues, most especially after colliding with another player or after finishing an intense training regimen.
  • Keep a healthy diet to maintain your ideal weight.
  • Perform exercises that aim to develop your core, abdomen, and back muscles.
  • Cross-train and engage in resistance and flexibility exercises to strengthen your connective tissues, muscles, and bones.
  • Keep your spine health in check by upping your calcium and vitamin D intake.
  • Always wear personal protective equipment during training and competition.
  • Learn the best body mechanics and techniques applicable to your sport in order to prevent injuries.

A slipped disk that is not given attention can lead to permanent damage to the nerve, which can cut impulses and sensation as well as affect the way your body functions. At the first sign of any problem, consult with a doctor as soon as possible.


Article References

  1. Mai, Harry. "Management of Sports-Related Lumbar Conditions." Researchgate, Operative Techniques in Orthopaedics, June. 2015, www.researchgate.net/publication/277784633_Management_of_Sports-Related_Lumbar_Conditions
  2. Massa, Ruben Ngnitewe, and Fassil B Mesfin. "Herniation, Disc." NCBI, StatPearls Publishing LLC, 10 Oct. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK441822/
  3. "Lumbar Herniated Disc." University of Maryland Medical Center, DePuy Acromed, 2003, www.umm.edu/programs/spine/health/guides/lumbar-herniated-disc
  4. Vialle, Luis Roberto, et al. "LUMBAR DISC HERNIATION." US National library of Medicine, Elsevier, 16 Nov. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4799068/
  5. Oosterhuis, T, et al. "Rehabilitation after lumbar disc surgery." US National library of Medicine, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 14 Mar. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24627325

Page Reference

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  • FLEMING, J. (2018) Slipped Disk in Athletes [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/article313.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Joe Fleming is the President at ViveHealth.com. Passionate about healthy lifestyles and living a full life, he enjoys sharing and expressing these interests through his writing. With a goal to inspire others and fight ageism, Joe writes to help people of all backgrounds and ages overcome life's challenges. His work ranges from articles on wellness, holistic health and ageing to social narratives, motivational pieces and news stories. For Joe, helping others is vital.

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