Has anyone ever told you they have a “slipped disc”? This term is actually a misnomer since discs don’t really “slip” but either degenerate, bulge, or herniate. Fortunately, a physical therapist can treat all these issues!
The latter condition, called a disc herniation, occurs when the outer layer of the disc tears. This allows the disc’s inner gel-like substance to leak out into the surrounding joint area. This ruptured disc tissue can then press on nearby structures, like nerve roots and joint spaces.
Could this be what’s causing your pain?
Top Signs and Symptoms of a Herniated Disc
Not all herniated discs cause pain, and even if they do cause pain they won’t all present in the same way. But there are some common signs and symptoms we see among our patients who come to us with this type of spinal condition. They include:
- Back pain and stiffness. This usually occurs right around the level of the herniated disc. There may also be overlying muscle spasms as a protective response.
- Pain, numbness, and tingling that radiates into an arm or leg. This happens if the herniated disc compresses a nearby spinal nerve root.
- Weakness in an arm or leg. Again, this is caused by compression of a nerve root near the injured disc. Many people notice foot drop (an inability to flex their ankle up), weakened grip strength, or frequent tripping or “clumsiness.”
- Pain that gets worse with certain movements. In many cases, forward flexion (bending forward in the spine) can cause a herniated disc to bulge even more out of place, which can increase pain or cause it to peripheralize (move farther down a limb). Meanwhile, backward extension (leaning backward in the spine) can cause the herniated disc to retract back into better alignment, which can decrease pain or cause it to centralize (move up a limb and closer to the spine).
Risk Factors for Herniated Discs
A herniated disc can happen to anyone, but you may be more at risk if you:
- Sit a lot
- Do a lot of frequent bending, heavy lifting, or twisting
- Have a physically demanding job
- Suffer a traumatic event, such as a fall or auto accident
- Are obese or overweight
- Are male
- Are between the ages of 30 and 50
- Have a family history of disc and spine problems
What a Physical Therapist Can Do for Your Herniated Disc
Scientific evidence shows us that individualized physical therapy in addition to education and lifestyle advice is highly effective for reducing chronic back pain, including back pain caused by a herniated disc. In fact, it’s considered best practice to seek conservative treatment options like physical therapy long before undergoing any surgical intervention. And because physical therapy is non-invasive, it doesn’t expose the patient to potential risks and adverse reactions of surgery, including opioid addiction, failed back surgery syndrome (FBSS), and post-operative pain, bleeding, and infection.
If you believe you have a herniated disc, we encourage you to see a physical therapist. He or she can perform various tests and assess your history to make or confirm a diagnosis, so you’ll have a better understanding of what you’re dealing with. Then, he or she can prescribe customized interventions to alleviate your symptoms, heal the injured disc, and perhaps most importantly prevent recurring problems! Expect services such as:
- Core stabilization exercises
- Stretches to improve mobility elsewhere in the body, especially the shoulders and hips
- Non-invasive modalities like electrical stimulation, cold laser therapy, and diathermy
- Manual therapy, including massage and traction