Physical Therapy for Herniated Discs

If you’ve recently been diagnosed with a herniated disc, you might find yourself wondering, “How can I avoid surgery at all costs?”

Any qualified doctor worth his or her salt will attempt to help you do just this—employ the least invasive treatment methods possible before even broaching the topic of surgery. Of course, there are some notable exceptions to this rule that will necessitate immediate surgery. However, often, avoiding surgery means undergoing a course of physical therapy for your herniated disc.

Remember: Your spine is one of the most complicated structures in the human body. There are a plethora of moving parts, neural pathways, and connective tissues. Naturally, as is the case with anything that has many moving parts, the spine is prone to a host of medical problems as time goes by. Some of these conditions are benign (such as a pinched nerve), while others can be debilitating or even crippling (such as a spinal deformity). In rare cases, these medical conditions may even warrant surgical intervention.

Typically, this is not the case though.

With a combination of passive (e.g. deep tissue massage) and active (e.g. targeted exercises) treatments, you can jumpstart the healing process and develop healthy habits for life. Sometimes, all it takes is a gentle touch and the guidance of a professional PT to feel lightyears better than you ever thought possible. But, first, let’s discuss what a herniated disc is before we explain why herniated disc patients make such excellent candidates for physical therapy.


What Exactly is a Herniated Disc?

Including your sacrum and coccyx, the typical human spine consists of 26 stacked bones known as vertebrae. In between these bones lie rubbery cushions (or intervertebral discs). These discs serve a similar function to the oil in an automobile engine—they keep the bones from grinding together during our everyday movements. A spinal disc consists of a tougher exterior that surrounds a much softer, jellylike center (called the nucleus pulposus).

Over time, the outer layer of these discs can wear down. Cracks may even appear. And, when this happens, the soft, inner nucleus may leak out, applying pressure on nearby nerves. As you can imagine, this herniated disc material takes up unnecessary real estate, resulting in sensations of pain, numbness, or weakness in the extremities.

Despite this, many people with herniated discs experience no symptoms at all. That being said, consider contacting a doctor for your herniated disc if:

  • You experience pain in the arm or leg. Usually, patients report feeling herniated disc pain in their thigh, calf, or buttocks when sustaining a herniated disc in their lumbar spine or lower back. Sometimes, this pain even radiates all the way down to their foot. If your pain primarily affects your arm, then you’ve likely sustained a herniated or bulging disc in your cervical spine or neck region. As you can guess, where you experience your pain depends highly on which part of your spine has suffered the injury.
  • You feel numbness or tingling. Herniated disc material can leak into the intervertebral space, impinging on nerves that feed the extremities. A pinched nerve often causes the sensations of numbness or tingling that we associate with a herniated disc.
  • You feel weakness. Likewise, there’s a good chance that these pinched nerves also happen to serve one or more nearby muscle(s). This may cause the patient to become unsteady on his or her feet or impact his or her ability to lift even the lightest of objects.


Causes of & Risk Factors for Herniated Discs

Most of the time, a herniated disc results from the natural wear-and-tear associated with aging. Practitioners in the medical community refer to this process as disc degeneration. This gradual breakdown, in turn, makes our intervertebral discs less flexible, increasing the likelihood that they will sustain tears or ruptures. In fact, even a minor strain while moving from a sitting to standing position can lead to disc damage in an elderly patient.

Unfortunately, it can be very difficult for doctors to pinpoint the exact cause of a herniated disc. That being said, there are certain risk factors associated with the condition. These include:

  • Occupation: As to be expected, those with physically demanding jobs are at a much greater risk of developing a herniated disc than others. This especially true for any jobs that routinely require lifting, pushing, pulling, bending sideways, or twisting the torso. All of these little insults accumulate, leading to disc degeneration over time.
  • Body Weight: The spine supports a lot of weight, even in people who are underweight. Obesity only adds to the load that the spine supports, naturally applying more stress to the discs in your back.
  • Smoking: Research suggests that smoking adversely affects the oxygen supply to the discs of your spine, accelerating disc degeneration.


Herniated Discs & Physical Therapy

In all but the most severe cases, conservative care often leads to the best results when it comes to treating herniated discs. In fact, treatments, such as physical therapy, are often much more effective for a herniated disc than surgery or pain medications such as opioids.

Generally speaking, you will collaborate with a physical therapist who will put you on a specific treatment program to speed up your recovery. Typically speaking, your PT will give you a long list of viable exercises and treatments that you can perform in your own home. Through physical therapy, you will find yourself able to return to your normal lifestyle and activities. While it depends greatly on the patient and the severity of his/her condition, you may start to notice significant results within as little as 2 to 8 weeks.

Within the first day or two after you have been diagnosed with a herniated disc, your physical therapy will likely advise you to do the following:

  • Rest the affected area by avoiding any activities that exacerbate negative symptoms in your extremities.
  • Try not to spend too much time in bed.
  • Stay active around your house, making an effort to go on a few short walks each day. Gentle movement, such as walking, will help alleviate any pain or stiffness you might be experiencing.
  • For more immediate relief, you can try applying ice packs to the affected area for 20 minutes a day, every 2 hours.
  • Make sure that if you do sit down, you do so in chairs with firmer cushioning. Softer chairs and easy couches may make your symptoms worse.
  • Stay in touch with your physical therapist regularly throughout this process.


Physical Therapy: A Few Exercises That Might Work For You

Before you go any further, we still recommend that you talk to your physical therapist before trying any of these exercises. Depending on the nature of your case, some of these may or may not be good for your herniated disc. That being said, here’s a couple of exercises that may help you:

  • Neck stretches: Begin by sitting upright in a firm chair. Start by moving your chin toward your chest and then back against the headrest. Next, move your left ear to your left shoulder, followed by moving your right ear to your right shoulder. Repeat this several times to obtain the best results.
  • Towel hamstring stretch: Begin by lying flat on the floor while raising one leg toward the ceiling. (Use a yoga mat for added comfort.) Next, take a towel and wrap it around the foot of the raised leg. While holding the towel, pull the leg toward the body and hold it there for 15-30 seconds. Repeat this exercise several times on both legs.
  • Back flexion stretch: Lie on your back and begin by pulling both knees toward your chest. Again, you can use a yoga mat for added comfort. While holding this position, move your head forward toward your knees until you can feel a stretching sensation in your mid- and lower back. Repeat this activity several times for maximum effectiveness.

These are just a few exercises that you can try. Remember, your mileage may vary. As such, it is always best to discuss what exercises are right for you with your physical therapist. Performing an exercise improperly may make your situation even worse. As always, exercise caution when exercising.

Contact Us

Have you been experiencing pain in your back or extremities for a period of two weeks or more? Have conservative options failed to address your negative symptoms? If so, it may be time to get in touch with one of our specialists at the Injury Care Center. Our staff prides themselves on crafting personalized treatment plans for each and every patient. We strive to use the least invasive form of treatments that are viable for your specific case. Don’t let your back pain control your life. Contact one of our devoted patient advocates at (877) 444-2422!