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Can Physical Therapy Help a Herniated Disc?

For many people, the anatomy of the human body can be perplexing. This is especially true for the spine, where a total of 23 discs are positioned between each vertebra to act as spinal shock absorbers. Confused already? Maybe the jelly doughnut analogy can help.

Each spinal disc comprises two separate parts — a tough outer portion (think of the exterior of a jelly doughnut) and a soft, gelatinous interior (like that gooey jelly inside your favorite breakfast treat). When the discs are in good working order, the integrity of the exterior component keeps the inside from leaking. But when the walls of that disc start to tear, and the interior portion of the disc (what we’re calling jelly) starts leaking through, the result is a condition called a herniated disc.

As anyone who has ever endured a herniated disc will tell you, it can be excruciating — which is why so many people find themselves asking if physical therapy can help. Today, we’ll explore the topic and provide an answer to this frequently asked question.

How Does a Herniated Disc Happen?

The first thing you should know is that a herniated disc goes by a variety of names, including slipped disc, bulging disc, and ruptured disc. Now, before we delve into treatment methods, let’s talk through some of the most popular ways that herniated discs occur. In most cases, the cause of disc herniation is simply aging. Our spinal discs ‌lose flexibility as we age, so minor strains or unexpected twists can herniate the disc.

While a herniated disc is seldom caused by an event like a fall, it’s possible for the injury to occur when lifting extremely heavy weights or using poor form when lifting. Additionally, excess body weight, genetics, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle can increase your chances of developing a herniated disc.

What Does a Herniated Disc Feel Like?

Pain is subjective, so it’s impossible to say exactly what you might feel if you’ve herniated a disc. Some people feel no pain at all with a herniated disc. However, there are a few common signs and symptoms that typically indicate something may be wrong. It’s likely that you’ll experience pain in places beyond just where the herniated disc is, including other parts of your back, neck, buttocks, and down your arms and legs.

Numbness, tingling, and weakness in your neck, back, arms, and legs also frequently occur with a herniated disc. You may notice an inability to bend or rotate in certain ways, and rising from a chair and/or standing up straight can be a challenge with some patients. Additionally, sudden or jarring movements like coughing, sneezing, or reaching can trigger intense bouts of pain. Interestingly, the last thing you probably want to do when you’re in pain is move around — but it’s a good idea to avoid spending too much time on the couch. Experts agree that gentle movement and remaining active are essential in preventing the injury from worsening.

How is a Herniated Disc Diagnosed?

If you’re experiencing any of those signs and symptoms, you should visit your healthcare provider for a thorough exam. To start, your primary care physician will ask you questions about what you’re feeling, how long you’ve been experiencing those symptoms, and how the symptoms are preventing you from carrying out your daily activities. If there’s reason to believe a disc has been herniated, the doctor may order one or more common diagnostic tests for a better look at what’s happening within your spine.

Magnetic resonance imaging, better known as MRI, is the most accurate of those tests, though it’s not the only option. X-rays can rule out other potential causes for the pain, while CT scans and myelograms each provide unique findings, like if the herniated disc is pressing on nerves in the area and if there is any noticeable narrowing of the spinal canal.

Is Physical Therapy an Effective Way to Treat a Herniated Disc?

The best thing you can do is try to avoid a herniated disc entirely by using proper mechanics when lifting, maintaining a healthy weight, quitting smoking, and practicing a regular exercise regimen that keeps you limber. Despite all that, if you still struggle with a herniated disc, you’ll be happy to know that physical therapy can effectively treat the condition. Your best bet is to find a physical therapist with experience handling orthopedic problems, as these providers are more likely to understand precisely what it takes to put you on the road to recovery.

What Types of Physical Therapy Treatments are Used for Herniated Discs?

In most cases, the physical therapist will use a combination of both active and passive techniques, depending on when you first started noticing signs or symptoms of a herniated disc. The provider will use that information, along with key details on what you’re feeling, to develop a treatment plan personalized to you.

Some of the more frequently used passive treatment methods include deep tissue massage, hot and cold therapy, hydrotherapy, and transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. Also known as TENS, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation uses electrical currents to stimulate the muscles, reduce muscle spasms, and generate pain-killing endorphins.

After some time and gentle healing, the physical therapist will likely transition to active treatments intended to build strength, stability, and flexibility. Patients take on more vigorous modalities during this phase, like light weightlifting for the core and back, along with deep stretching and water aerobics.

The best physical therapists will empower patients with the knowledge needed to continue strengthening and addressing these weaker areas long after their sessions are completed. In turn, this can guide the patient in hopefully avoiding similar issues in the future.

Have You Been Diagnosed with a Herniated Disc? Athletic PT Can Help

Our staff regularly sees patients who have been diagnosed with herniated discs, and we go to great lengths to develop a tailored plan to treat their pain. We understand how a herniated disc can impact your daily life, and our goal is always to restore any functionality you’ve lost. If you’ve been diagnosed with a herniated disc or think you may have one, you should schedule an appointment with Athletic Physical Therapy today.