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Slipped disc

A slipped disc, also called a prolapsed or herniated disc, is when a soft cushion of tissue between the bones in your spine bulges outwards. It's painful if it presses on nerves. It usually gets better slowly with rest, gentle exercise and painkillers.

Check if it's a slipped disc

A slipped disc can cause:

  • lower back pain
  • numbness or tingling in your shoulders, back, arms, hands, legs or feet
  • neck pain
  • problems bending or straightening your back
  • muscle weakness
  • pain in the buttocks, hips or legs if the disc is pressing on the sciatic nerve (sciatica)

Not all slipped discs cause symptoms. Many people will never know they have slipped a disc.

Other causes of back pain

Sometimes back pain may be a result of an injury such as a sprain or strain, but often there's no obvious reason.

Back pain is rarely caused by anything serious.

How you can ease the pain from a slipped disc yourself

Keeping active and taking painkillers can help ease the pain from a slipped disc.

Keep active

If the pain is very bad, you may need to rest at first. But start gentle exercise as soon as you can – it'll help you get better faster.

The type of exercise is not important, just gradually increase your activity level.

Take painkillers

Try anti-inflammatory painkillers such as ibuprofen to help ease the pain.

Take them regularly (up to the recommended daily amount) rather than just when the pain is particularly bad. This will help you to keep moving.

A pharmacist can help with a slipped disc

Anti-inflammatory painkillers are not suitable for everyone. Speak to a pharmacist if you're not sure if you can take them.

You can also get advice from a pharmacist about stronger painkillers containing codeine. These can help for pain that's just started, but they can cause addiction and should only be used for a few days.

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if:

You have back pain and:

  • painkillers are not helping
  • the pain is not getting better after a few weeks
  • a very high temperature or you feel hot and shivery
  • unexplained weight loss
  • a swelling in your back
  • the pain is worse at night

Immediate action required: Call 999 or go to A&E if:

You have back pain and:

  • numbness around your bottom or genitals
  • cannot pee
  • lose feeling in 1 or both legs
  • cannot control when you pee or poo
  • got it after a serious accident, such as a car accident

Do not drive to A&E. Ask someone to drive you or call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Bring any medicines you take with you.

What happens at your appointment

Your GP will usually be able to tell if you have a slipped disc from your symptoms.

You may also have a physical examination. Your GP might ask you to raise your arms or do simple leg exercises to find out where the slipped disc is.

Treatment for a slipped disc from a GP

A GP might prescribe a stronger painkiller, a steroid injection or a muscle relaxant to use in the short term for a slipped disc.

If your symptoms do not get better, a GP might recommend further tests, like an MRI scan.

They might also refer you to a physiotherapist. Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Surgery for a slipped disc

Surgery is not usually needed, but a GP might refer to you a specialist to discuss surgery if your symptoms:

  • have not improved using other treatments
  • include worsening muscle weakness, or numbness

Alternative treatments for a slipped disc

There's some evidence that manual therapies, like osteopathy, can help ease lower back pain.

You'll usually have to pay for this treatment privately.


Self-refer for treatment

If you have a slipped disc, you might be able to refer yourself directly to services for help with your condition without seeing a GP.

To find out if there are any services in your area:

  • ask the receptionist staff at your GP surgery
  • check your GP surgery's website
  • contact your local integrated care board (ICB) – find your local ICB
  • search online for NHS treatment for a slipped disc near you

How you get a slipped disc

A slipped disc can happen because of:

  • ageing
  • exercising too hard
  • lifting heavy objects the wrong way
  • sitting down or driving for long periods of time
  • being inactive or overweight

How to prevent a slipped disc

There are some things you can do to help prevent a slipped disc.


  • keep active – take regular exercise

  • use a safe technique when lifting heavy objects


  • do not smoke – nicotine weakens the disc tissue in the spine

Page last reviewed: 24 April 2024
Next review due: 24 April 2027