12 Mar, 2024

Herniated Disc (Slipped Disc) MRI Scan: How to Diagnose a Slipped Disc

Back pain is a common reason for getting an MRI scan. If you find yourself suffering, your back pain could be caused by a herniated, slipped, or bulging disc. This guide will tell you all you need to know about slipped disc MRI scans, what they can show, and how to get one.

What are discs in the spine?

Your spine is made up of 33 bones (called the vertebrae) stacked on top of each other, and between each of those bones are round, spongy tissues called discs—short for intervertebral discs—that perform three main functions:

  • Absorb shock and resist compression.

  • Maintain stability in the spine.

  • Allow frictionless movements of the vertebrae.

Each intervertebral disc comprises a tough outer shell called the annulus fibrosus that forms a ring around a soft, gelatinous centre called the nucleus pulposus. And at every juncture where the spinal bones and discs meet are ligaments that keep the discs in place, and spinal nerves that connect to different body parts. 

What is a herniated disc?

A herniated disc happens when the nucleus pulposus (soft centre of the disc) protrudes and eventually pushes out through a tear in the outer shell. This displacement can press on a spinal nerve, causing inflammation and several pain symptoms. 

Traumatic injury caused by car accidents, contact sports, and hard physical labour is the leading cause of disc herniation. Still, it can also result from simple wear and tear associated with ageing. It typically affects the lower back or neck region and, in some rare cases, the upper back. 

Due to risk factors, including age, smoking, sedentary lifestyle, bad posture, poor nutrition, being overweight, and even genetics, disc changes—such as the gelatinous core losing much of its water content—are bound to happen. These changes are different for everyone and may result in disc degeneration and a bulging or herniated disc [1]. 

If you have a herniated disc, you will likely notice the following symptoms:

  • Pain at the site of the injured disc

  • Numbness or tingling in the arms or legs

  • Sharp or burning pain when you bend, walk, stand, sit, or try to lift items

  • Muscle spasms or weakness

  • Sciatica 

Suppose a herniated disc(s) in the lower back compresses the nerve roots at the end of the spinal cord. In that case, a person might also experience a condition known as the cauda equina syndrome, characterised by loss of bladder or bowel control, trouble balancing, and progressive reflex loss in the lower extremities [6].

Slipped disc vs Herniated disc: Is a herniated disc the same as a slipped disc?

Yes! A slipped disc can also be referred to as a herniated disc. Both terms describe a condition where the intervertebral disc—or a part of it—slips out of place.

Difference between bulging disc and herniated disc

Many people are confused about the difference between bulging disc and herniated disc because they share similar symptoms. Moreover, some health practitioners often use both terms interchangeably. 

Getting a proper diagnosis starts with knowing the differences and similarities between the two. 

Herniated disc vs bulging disc: Is a bulging disc a herniated disc?

The difference between bulging and herniated disc is that in a bulged disc, the soft, gel-like centre doesn’t push out through a tear in the tough, flexible outer wall. Instead, it somewhat deflates or flattens out.

Bulged discs develop quite differently. Our discs deteriorate and degenerate with age. As this happens, the gelatinous centre of a disc loses its water content, reducing pressure within the disc’s core. Consequently, it gradually loses its plumpness, sags, and can press outward under the weight of the adjacent bones. This can result in a fairly even bulge around a disc’s circumference or along a small portion of it. 

Suppose you still need help understanding the difference between herniated and bulging disc or fear you might confuse both later. Do this:

Picture the herniated disc as what would happen  if you pressed  on a jam doughnut and the bulging disc as a deflated car tire or a hamburger with a patty slightly larger than its buns. 

Keep in mind that you can refer to a herniated disc as a “bulging,” “slipped,” or “ruptured” disc, but a bulging disc cannot be labelled as herniated. If left untreated, a bulging disc can progress to become herniated if its outer wall tears and the soft centre leaks out.

How to diagnose a slipped disc

Diagnosing a slipped disc starts with a thorough physical exam to assess your pain level, range of motion, and muscle weakness. Your doctor might also look into your medical history to decide on a list of possible diagnoses. Next, your doctor would order a herniated disc scan to confirm the presence of a slipped disc. 

MRI is the most commonly used and most accurate diagnostic test for visualising the bones and soft tissues in the spine.

What is an MRI scan and why is it used for slipped discs?

MRI is short for magnetic resonance imaging. It is an imaging test that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to generate signals from the body and process them into clear, detailed images of its internal structures. It is non-invasive, painless, and poses no radiation risk.

An MRI scan has proven highly accurate in presenting a detailed image of any damage, including disc herniation, inflammation, tumours, osteophytes (bony overgrowths), abscesses, hematoma (blood clots), and more, in every corner of the spine. It has a 97% accuracy of confirming a suspected disc herniation in the lumbar spine (lower back) region [2]. 

You can rest assured that if the MRI doesn’t detect the presence of a herniated disc, it can still help identify the underlying cause of your painful symptoms.

What does a herniated disc look like on an MRI image?

The first thing you would notice when observing a herniated disc MRI image is the exact location of the hernia. The hernia usually presents as a contrasting spot in the MRI; you will see how far the disc protrudes and presses the surrounding spinal nerve.

A herniated disc can look larger and darker than other healthy discs on an MRI image. 

Can a chiropractor diagnose a slipped disc?

A chiropractor can diagnose a slipped disc by conducting a thorough physical examination; it helps them understand the severity of the pain (i.e., the symptom). However, to confirm the diagnosis and determine the exact location of the slipped disc, assess how far the herniation has progressed (i.e., the root cause), and develop a comprehensive treatment plan, they will need to refer to the detailed images of your spine provided in your herniated disc MRI report. 

What scan shows a herniated disc?

A slipped disc MRI scan is a gold-standard diagnostic tool for investigating troubling back pain. However, due to its use of strong magnetic fields, it is not ideal for people with:

  • Heart devices (e.g., pacemakers and defibrillators) implanted before the year 2000 [4]

  • Cochlear implants

  • Neurostimulators

  • Bone growth stimulators 

  • Implanted drug infusion pumps

  • Intracranial aneurysm clips

  • Stainless-steel intrauterine contraceptive device [3]

  • Any kind of metallic implant or prosthesis

If this is the case for you, and you are now unsure about your next step, book a consultation to match with an expert clinician. Other alternatives to a slipped disc MRI scan include ultrasound and computed tomography (CT) scan. 

Our clinician will call to discuss your concerns and give you a no-obligation referral to a diagnostic solution that suits your unique needs.

Where can I get a slipped disc MRI scan near me?

Getting an MRI scan for slipped discs near you is easy when you can access the UK’s largest network of scanning centres. With over 150 thoroughly vetted options, you can book a private MRI scan within your budget, near your location, and at your convenience. No GP referral needed. No long wait times. No boring paperwork.

On booking, you will get on-demand access to an expert clinician team who will provide personalised guidance before your scan and, if necessary, arrange a post-scan consultation call to explain the information in your test reports and slipped disc MRI images.

How is a slipped disc treated?

Acute slipped disc pain can resolve by itself within 6 to 12 weeks without treatment. The key is conservative management, which involves adequate bed rest, physical therapy, and over-the-counter pain medications (such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen). 

If your herniated disc symptoms are persistent and severe, you might be prescribed medications such as muscle relaxants or corticosteroids.

Additionally, steroid injection for slipped disc has proven to be a clinically effective treatment method for lower back pain associated with disc herniation [7]. We understand that the word ‘steroid’ may seem daunting at first. Hence, we have expert spinal specialists on board to discuss the available injection options and all their benefits for your unique condition. Book a guided injection to speak with one. You can receive your treatment on the same day as the consultation. 

In cases where conservative treatments and medications fail to provide relief or when there is significant nerve compression leading to severe symptoms such as weakness or loss of bladder or bowel control, surgery may be considered. Surgical options for a slipped disc include discectomy (removal of the herniated portion of the disc), laminectomy (removal of part of the vertebral bone), or spinal fusion (joining two or more vertebrae together with bone grafts or metal hardware).


Want to get to the root cause of your back pain already? Book a private MRI scan for slipped disc today to get a faster diagnosis and start your treatment journey. 



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