Is Your Back Pain Due to Herniated Discs? Understanding the Cause of Your Discomfort

Aug10th 2020

Living with back pain can be frustrating, especially when it seems like nothing you do makes it better. At Full Potential Physical Therapy, we invite you to call us to schedule an appointment if you’re concerned about your back pain symptoms. Could they be caused by a herniated disc? If so, a physical therapist can help you feel better and even restore health and healing to the injured disc.

What is a Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc happens when the gel-like core inside a spinal disc leaks out through a small tear in the disc’s outer layer. We often compare it to jelly leaking out of a jelly donut! When this happens, the injured disc tissue can irritate or compress nearby spinal nerves or joint structures and may cause pain and other symptoms.

Herniated discs are most common among men between 35 and 55 years old, although they can occur to anyone, especially if they have herniated disc risk factors like:

  • Sedentary behavior
  • Physically demanding job and/or frequent exposure to vibration, heavy lifting, or twisting and bending
  • Smoking habit
  • Obesity
  • Family history

Herniated discs can happen suddenly as the result of an auto accident or other acute trauma, or they can develop gradually over time. We see them most often in the neck area or lower back area.

A herniated disc is often mislabeled as a slipped disc. But discs don’t actually “slip.” They can herniate, as described above, or “bulge” out of place. In the case of a bulging disc, something causes a disc to protrude out of its normal position in the spine, but the outer layer of the disc doesn’t tear, so the inner gel-like core doesn’t leak out. The symptoms and treatment of a bulging disc are often similar to a herniated disc, however.

Common Herniated Disc Symptoms

Here’s something that may surprise you: herniated discs don’t always cause pain or other symptoms! Surprisingly, it’s not unusual for a herniated disc to show up on an MRI even when the a person has no complaints.

But if a herniated disc does cause symptoms, the issues can be incredibly disruptive. Common warning signs of a herniated disc include:

  • Shooting pain and numbness in an arm or leg (if the herniated disc irritates a nearby nerve root that innervates that arm or leg)
  • Weakness and altered reflexes in an arm or leg (at our physical therapy clinic, some of our patients report issues like frequent tripping because the muscles that lift the foot become weak)
  • Decreased range of motion in the neck or back
  • Tense and painful muscle spasms near the injured disc
  • Pain that gets better with certain movements and worse with other movements (for example, herniated disc symptoms often get worse or move further into your arm or leg when you bend foward, and get better or move closer to your spine when you lean back or lay flat)

The only way to know for sure what’s causing your back pain is to consult with a doctor, physical therapist, or other health professional. Keep in mind, sometimes it’s simply not possible to know for sure what’s causing your symptoms. That’s okay, though: research shows that when doctors aren’t able to provide an exact back pain diagnosis (the so-called “idiopathic” cases), physical therapy treatment can still be beneficial.

How a Physical Therapist Can Help Treat Herniated Discs

Physical therapy is considered a first line of defense for herniated disc treatment. Your physical therapist can perform a variety of examination tests and techniques to help clarify what’s going on and identify any underlying factors which may have contributed to your disc herniation.

For example, we often find that people with limited hip range of motion or weak core muscles­ are more at risk for herniated discs. Identifying these types of contributing factors allows us to address them and help reduce your chances of recurring disc problems.

Other common treatments for a herniated disc that your physical therapist may recommend include:

  • Manual therapy, including soft tissue massage
  • Non-invasive tools like therapeutic ultrasound, electrical stimulation, biofeedback, cold and hot therapy, and diathermy to promote healing, reduce spasms and inflammation, and improve your movement
  • Therapeutic exercises and stretches to improve core strength and endurance, range of motion, and posture
  • Orthotics and other types of adaptive equipment like walkers or long-handled reachers to help improve skeletal alignment and make it easier to perform daily tasks

Research also suggests that even after a herniated disc heals, a person may still experience prolonged pain. This can happen if the nervous system becomes increasingly sensitive in an attempt to protect you—and it’s something physical therapy can address through a technique known as therapeutic neuroscience education (TNE). By helping you better understand what pain is and how it happens, we can actually help you experience less of it!

For our patients with herniated discs and other issues causing low back pain, we also provide education about proper body mechanics, ergonomics, self-pacing techniques, exercise programs, and more.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) considers physical therapy a good alternative to prescription opioid medications for helping people with low back pain caused by herniated discs and other (non-cancer) related issues. Our physical therapy team also understands that sometimes pain medication is essential in the early phases of an injury in order to alleviate pain and minimize inflammation. That’s why we work collaboratively with your whole medical team to ensure you get the most appropriate treatment for your specific situation. If you have questions about your medications, be sure to talk to your prescribing physician.

Is a Herniated Disc Impairing Your Ability to Get Through Your Day?

If you’re laid up by herniated disc symptoms and are hoping to avoid surgery or reduce your dependency on medications, contact Full Potential Physical Therapy today. We’re happy to get you scheduled to see a physical therapist who can start you on your pain-relief path ASAP.

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