You may have been in this position before. Something feels terribly wrong with your back, but you’re not quite sure what it is. You might be experiencing strange neck pains, back pains, or other symptoms in your extremities. These sensations can indicate a variety of potential problems – including one or more herniated discs in your back.
So, 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 pain.
Here are some helpful tidbits of information from our physical therapist about herniated discs, their common symptoms, and how physical therapy can help you get rid of your discomfort.
WHAT IS A HERNIATED DISC?
Your spinal discs are flat discs of tissue that lie between the vertebrae. A disc consists of a fluid-filled center called the “nucleus pulposus”, encased in an outer structure called the “annulus fibrosus”. This arrangement makes the disc both tough enough and spongy enough to absorb shocks.
Unfortunately, that toughness has its limits. Sometimes a disc will lose hydration over time, causing the nucleus pulposus to get smaller. The disc loses its height, which stresses the spinal joints and may cause the disc to bulge outward.
Eventually, these changes can cause part of the annulus fibrosus to balloon and tear open; causing a herniated disc. Herniated discs can also occur suddenly due to an auto accident, workplace accident, or sports injury that traumatizes the spine. They are also known as slipped or ruptured discs, and they do require medical attention.
SYMPTOMS OF A HERNIATED DISC
Herniated discs don’t always cause symptoms in everyone, but on the chance that you are one of the people who experience them, here are some of the most common ones:
- An inability to walk more than a few steps without pain
- Pain, tingling, or loss of sensation in a limb (the result of a herniated disc pressing against nerve roots)
- Back pain that seems to grow worse when you sneeze, cough, stand up, or sit down
- Neck pain (if it’s a cervical disc)
Some of these symptoms may begin after you gain a lot of weight since obesity is a risk factor for disc problems. You may notice others shortly after an accident that caused extreme twisting of the neck or back, or an attempt to lift a heavy object.
Don’t panic and think that all back pain is the result of a bulging disc. If your symptoms seem to be soothed by massage, heat, or cold, you’re more likely to have a strained muscle. Ultimately, the most accurate way to confirm a herniated disc is through medical imaging. X-rays can reveal not only the abnormal shape of a herniated disc but also whether the herniation is pinching a nerve.
HOW ARE HERNIATED DISCS TREATED?
Physical therapy can successfully treat herniated discs! At your initial appointment, one of our physical therapists will perform diagnostic tests to determine the root of your pain and verify that your pain is indeed being caused by a herniated disc.
Once the cause of your pain is clear, a customized treatment plan will be created for you, based on your specific needs. This typically includes a series of targeted stretches and exercises aimed at relieving your pain, improving your function, and promoting the natural healing process of your body.
Additional treatments may be added as your physical therapist deems fit. These include:
- Manual therapy
- Class IV laser therapy
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
- Education on posture and lifting mechanics
- Ice and heat therapies
Physical therapy is one of the safest, quickest, and most effective ways to treat herniated discs. It is a holistic and non-invasive approach that, in many cases, has been able to eliminate the need for harmful drugs or surgical intervention.
Your physical therapist will also advise you on any lifestyle changes that may be recommended in order to prevent herniated discs from developing again in the future. Our physical therapist can recommend specific exercises to build up the strength in your back or neck. These exercises can counter any atrophy or weakness you’ve experienced due to your herniated disc. Your therapist may also recommend other non-invasive techniques to complement your physical therapy exercises and help you heal.
READY TO GET YOUR LIFE BACK?
A herniated disc can cause a lot of misery — but don’t panic! Most herniated discs can be treated successfully without invasive and expensive surgical operations. Physical therapy can be the key to helping you reduce or eliminate your symptoms.