BMJ Group Medical Reference


Back pain can be caused by many different things. Only about 1 in 25 people withpain in their lower back have a slipped disc.[1] If you have a slipped disc, the pain is caused by the damaged disc pressing on a nerve.

The main symptoms of a slipped disc are back pain and sciatica. Sciatica is a pain that spreads down through your buttock and your leg.

Back pain

The pain from a slipped disc can start in different ways. You might feel an ache in your lower back after you do something that you’re not used to, even something like raking autumn leaves.[5] Some hours later, the pain gets so bad that you can’t move about easily.

Or you may get severe pain all of a sudden, without warning. Some people say it can feel like being stabbed with a knife.

Serious pain can stop you carrying out your normal activities. It’s worth seeing your GP about it. To find out whether you have a slipped disc, your GP will need to find out if doing different kinds of movements hurts you.[12]


If you have a slipped disc, you’ll almost always get pain in your buttocks, thighs, legs, and feet. Usually the pain is only on one side.

You may also get numbness, weakness, or tingling in the same area.

herndisc-sciaticnerve-original1_defaultThese symptoms mean the damaged disc is pressing on a sciatic nerve. These nerves travel from the base of your back through your buttocks and down the back of each leg to your feet.

Sciatica can come on at the same time as the back pain or it may come on later. The pain may move from your lower back to your leg.

With sciatica you can find it uncomfortable to sit down, stand up, or bend over. You will also find it painful to lift the affected leg while you’re lying down. This is one of the tests doctors use to diagnose sciatica.

You can often get relief by getting into certain comfortable positions, such as lying down.[13]

Although 9 in 10 people with sciatica do have a slipped disc, having sciatica doesn’t prove that you have a damaged disc. About 1 in 10 people with sciatica get it because of other problems.[14]

To learn more, see Do I have sciatica?

Warning signs of something more serious

If you have back pain and you also lose control of your bowels or bladder, or if your arms or legs feel numb or weak, you need to get medical help at once. These symptoms can mean one of two things.

  • Your slipped disc could be pressing on the spinal cord (doctors call this spinal cord compression).
  • Your slipped disc could be pressing on the nerves that run down from the bottom of the spinal cord. Doctors call these nerves the cauda equina. If these nerves are being damaged, it is called cauda equina syndrome.

We don’t talk about treating spinal cord compression or cauda equina syndrome here. But they are medical emergencies. If you have these symptoms, you may need urgent surgery to relieve the pressure on the affected nerves.


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