Recognizing and Treating Herniated Disc Pain With Physical Therapy


Have you noticed excruciating back pain that wasn’t around a few months ago? The cause may be a herniated disc. You might be wondering, how can you tell for sure whether you have this specific problem? And if you do have a herniated disc, what can you do about it? These questions don’t have to add confusion and frustration to your physical woes.

At our physical therapy clinic, we see disc herniations frequently among our patients with back, arm, and/or leg pain. If you’re experiencing discomfort in any of these areas, let one of our skilled therapists take a look and determine the true source of your pain.

What is a herniated disc?

Spinal discs are small soft structures found between vertebral bones. Their main jobs are to absorb shock and maximize mobility within the spine. On the outside, these discs are tough and fibrous, but on the inside, they are soft and have a gel-like consistency.

A herniated disc occurs when the tough outer layer of the disc (called the annulus fibrosis) ruptures. This allows the inner gel substance (called the nucleus pulposus) to leak out. The ruptured disc tissue can trigger an inflammatory response and compress nearby structures, including joint receptors and spinal nerve roots.

Common signs you may have a herniated disc

The pain with a herniated disc can be sharp. Pain, numbness, and tingling can radiate to other parts of the body, too.

While most herniated discs occur in the lower back, they also can occur in the cervical area. Symptoms are dependent on where the disc is located and whether or not it’s compressing a nerve. Keep in mind that you can have a herniated disc with no symptoms, which is another reason it’s a good idea to get a physical therapist involved.

Typically, one side of a person’s body is affected. You might experience arm and leg pain, tingling, numbness, or weakness. If the herniated disc is located in the back, you’ll likely experience pain in the buttocks, thigh and calf. If it’s located in the neck, you’ll likely experience pain in the arm and shoulder.

How is a herniated disc diagnosed?

Your doctor can diagnose a herniated disc with a physical exam. Your doctor can perform a neurological exam to check muscle strength, reflexes, walking ability, and the ability to feel touch. Imaging tests may be ordered to diagnose the cause of your pain.

A CT scan shows cross-sectional images of the spinal column and can pinpoint a herniated disc. An MRI creates images of the body’s internal structures and can also confirm the location of a herniated disc.

Risk factors for herniated discs

When you see a physical therapist for back pain or herniated disc pain, they will assess you for risk factors known to be linked to herniated discs. Many of these are unpreventable (gender and age) but others are lifestyle habits, including:

  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Male gender
  • Acute trauma
  • Age between 30 and 50
  • Frequent bending, heavy lifting, or twisting
  • Physically demanding occupation

A herniated disc is also often the result of aging and known as disc degeneration. With age, the disc becomes less flexible. Lifting heavy objects improperly can cause a herniated disc. Genetics can also factor in.

How does a physical therapist treat a herniated disc?

Herniated discs do not disappear magically on their own. Physical therapists are trained movement specialists who can help you to recover if you have one, however.

Physical therapy plays a critical role in recovery from a herniated disc.

There are a variety of physical therapy techniques they can use to help relieve your pain. A physical therapist will work with you to develop a treatment program if you have a herniated disc. The focus is on flexibility, core stability, and muscle strength.

Core strengthening exercises will strengthen the back muscles for better support. Flexibility and stretching exercises will enhance movement. Exercises for muscle strengthening will create a strong structural support of the back.

Treatment may also include passive and active treatments. Passive treatments by a physical therapist include hot and cold therapy, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), and deep tissue massage. Heat therapy increases blood flow to the target area and enhances healing.

Cold therapy reduces inflammation and muscle spasm due to a herniated disc. TENS uses tiny electric currents to trigger endorphins and reduces pain. Deep tissue massage stimulates an increase in oxygen and nutrients for pain relief and healing.

All around, physical therapy can help you recover from a herniated disc and help prevent future injury to the spine. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of a herniated disc, it’s wise to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis.

Ready to find true relief from herniated disc pain?

If you’ve been searching high and low for relief from herniated disc pain, your search can end here. Call Base Physical Therapy today to learn more about how physical therapy can help you to find pain relief and get back to living a comfortable life.

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