A herniated disc occurs when the cushion-like cartilage (the disc) between the bones of the spine is torn, and the gelatin-like core of the disc leaks. Often mistakenly called a slipped disc, a herniated disc can be caused by sudden trauma or by long-term pressure on the spine. This condition most often affects people aged 30 to 50 years; men are twice as likely to be diagnosed as women. Repeated lifting, participating in weight-bearing sports, obesity, smoking, and poor posture are all risk factors for a herniated disc. The majority of herniated discs do not require surgery, and respond best to physical therapy. Physical therapists design individualized treatment programs to help people with herniated discs regain normal movement, reduce pain, and get back to their regular activities.
What is a Herniated Disk?
The spine is made up of 33 vertebrae (bones) stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebra is a cushion-like piece of cartilage called an “intervertebral disc.” Imagine the disc as a jelly donut:
- The outer portion of the donut is a rubbery substance (the “annulus fibrosus” or AF).
- A gelatin-like substance fills the “hole” in the donut (the “nucleus pulposus” or NP).
In people younger than 30 years of age, the disc is soft, flexible, and absorbs shock extremely well. As individuals age, however, the disc can lose some flexibility. If stress is applied to the spine, the outer part of the disc (AF) can tear, and the gelatin-like core (NP) leaks through the tear. This leaking, or bulging, of the gelatin is called a herniated disc. In more severe cases, the leaked NP can seep outside the spinal column.
Injuries that cause herniation can occur rapidly, or develop slowly over time.
- A sudden injury can occur when an individual lifts something while in a poor position. This action strains the spine, and causes the outer part of a disc to suddenly tear.
- A slow injury can occur as the result of sitting or standing with poor posture (slumped forward) for hours, weeks, or years, slowly overstretching or tearing the outer part of a disc.
The most common area of the spine to experience a herniated disc is the low back, just below the waist level. Herniated discs also commonly occur in the neck.
How Does It Feel?
A herniated disc can cause pain, tightness, numbness, weakness, or tingling in the neck, back, arms, or legs. If the bulging or leaking disc pushes on a nearby nerve, pain or muscle weakness may result. If the bulging or leaking disc does not push on a nerve, pain or disability may not occur. Although back or neck pain can be caused by a herniated disc, other factors may be involved. Your physical therapist can test for and rule out other possible conditions.
If a herniated disc is severely pressing on a nerve, or is pressing on the spinal cord, surgery may be needed to immediately relieve that pressure. Your physical therapist can help determine whether either of these conditions is occurring, and will work closely with your physician and surgeon to determine the correct treatment.
Signs and Symptoms
The type and location of your symptoms depend on the location and direction of the herniated disc, and the amount of pressure on nearby nerves.
A herniated disc may cause no pain at all. Or, it can cause any of the following symptoms:
- Pain in the neck, back, low back, arms, or legs
- Inability to bend or rotate the neck or back
- Numbness or tingling in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, hips, legs, or feet
- Weakness in the arms or legs
- Limping when walking
- Increased pain when coughing, sneezing, reaching, or sitting
- Inability to stand up straight; being “stuck” in a position, such as stooped forward or leaning to the side
- Difficulty getting up from a chair
- Inability to remain in 1 position for a long period of time, such as sitting or standing, due to pain
- Pain that is worse in the morning
In individuals older than 50 years, the gelatin-like core of the disc (NP) can become dry and less soft, making it less likely to leak, or herniate. This deterioration, however, can lead to other conditions that cause pain, such as degenerative disc disease, and degenerative joint disease. Your physical therapist will work with other health care professionals to determine your correct diagnosis.
How Is It Diagnosed?
Your physical therapist will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes taking your health history. Your physical therapist will also ask you detailed questions about your injury, such as:
- How and when did the pain start?
- At what time of day is it worse?
- What type of discomfort do you feel, and where do you feel it?
- What can’t you do right now, in your daily life, due to the pain?
Your physical therapist will perform tests on your body to find physical problems, such as:
- Difficulty moving
- Weakness or tightness in the muscles
- Loss of skin sensation in some areas (numbness)
- Loss of reflexes
- Joint stiffness
- Poor posture
- Difficulty walking
If your physical therapist finds any of the above problems, physical therapy treatment may begin right away, to help get you on the road to recovery and back to your normal activities.
If testing identifies more severe problems, your physical therapist may collaborate with a physician or surgeon to obtain special diagnostic testing, such as an MRI. Physical therapists work closely with physicians and other health care providers to ensure that you receive an accurate diagnosis and the treatment and care you need.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
In all but the most extreme cases, conservative care (such as physical therapy) often produces better results in treating a herniated disc than surgery or pain medications, such as opioids.
Your physical therapist will work with you to design a specific treatment program that will speed your recovery, including exercises and treatments that you can do at home. Physical therapy will help you return to your normal lifestyle and activities. The time it takes to heal the condition varies, but results can be achieved in 2 to 8 weeks or less, when a proper posture, pain-reduction, stretching, and strengthening program is implemented.
During the first 24 to 48 hours following your diagnosis of a herniated disc, your physical therapist may advise you to:
- Rest the area by avoiding any activity that causes worsening symptoms in the arms or legs.
- Avoid bed rest.
- Stay active around the house, and go on short walks several times per day. Movement will decrease pain and stiffness, and help you feel better.
- Apply ice packs to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 hours.
- Sit in firm chairs. Soft couches and easy chairs may make your problems worse.
- Consult with a physician for further services, such as medications or diagnostic tests.
Some exercises are better for individuals with herniated discs. Your physical therapist will educate you about them. For example:
- Exercising in water can be a great way to stay physically active when other forms of exercise are painful.
- Exercises that involve lots of twisting and bending may or may not benefit you. Your physical therapist will design an individualized exercise program to meet your specific needs.
- Weight-training exercises, though very important, need to be done with proper form to avoid stress to the back and neck.
Your physical therapist will work with you to:
Reduce pain and other symptoms. Your physical therapist will help you understand how to avoid or modify the activities that caused the injury, so healing can begin. Your physical therapist may use different types of treatments and technologies to control and reduce your pain and symptoms.
Improve posture. If your physical therapist finds that poor posture has contributed to your herniated disc, the therapist will teach you how to improve your posture so that pressure is reduced in the injured area, and healing can begin and progress as rapidly as possible.
Improve motion. Your physical therapist will choose specific activities and treatments to help restore normal movement in any stiff joints. These might begin with “passive” motions that the physical therapist performs for you to move your spine, and progress to “active” exercises and stretches that you do yourself. You can perform these motions at home and in your workplace to help hasten healing and pain relief.
Improve flexibility. Your physical therapist will determine if any of the involved muscles are tight, start helping you to stretch them, and teach you how to stretch them at home.
Improve strength. If your physical therapist finds any weak or injured muscles, your physical therapist will choose, and teach you, the correct exercises to steadily restore your strength and agility. For neck and back disc herniations, “core strengthening” is commonly used to restore the strength and coordination of muscles around your back, hips, abdomen, and pelvis.
Improve endurance. Restoring muscular endurance is important after an injury. Your physical therapist will develop a program of activities to help you regain the endurance you had before the injury, and improve it.
Learn a home program. Your physical therapist will teach you strengthening, stretching, and pain-reduction exercises to perform at home. These exercises will be specific for your needs; if you do them as prescribed by your physical therapist, you can speed your recovery.
Return to activities. Your physical therapist will discuss your activity levels with you and use them to set your work, sport, and home-life recovery goals. Your treatment program will help you reach your goals in the safest, fastest, and most effective way possible. For spine injuries like a herniated disc, your physical therapist may teach you proper “body mechanics”—correct ways to perform tasks and lift heavy objects—that will help protect your spine from further injury.
Once your pain is gone, it will be important for you to continue your new posture and movement habits to keep your back healthy and pain free.
In rare cases, surgery is necessary to prevent permanent damage to a nerve or the spinal cord. If you undergo surgery for your herniated disc, your physical therapist will work closely with you and your surgeon to help you regain motion and strength more quickly than you could on your own, and help you get back to your normal lifestyle as quickly as possible.
Can This Injury or Condition Be Prevented?
To prevent experiencing a herniated disc, individuals should:
- Use proper body mechanics when lifting, pushing, pulling, or performing any action that puts extra stress on your spine.
- Maintain a healthy weight. This will reduce the stress on your spine.
- Stop smoking.
- Discuss your occupation with a physical therapist, who can provide an analysis of your job tasks and offer suggestions for reducing your risk of injury.
- Keep your muscles strong and flexible. Participate in a consistent program of physical activity to maintain a healthy fitness level.
Many physical therapy clinics offer “back schools,” which teach people how to take care of their backs and necks and prevent injury. Ask your physical therapist about programs in your area. If you don’t have a physical therapist, click on Find a PT to find a certified professional in your immediate area.
To prevent recurrence of a herniated disc, follow the above advice, and:
- Continue the new posture and movement habits that you learned from your physical therapist, to keep your back healthy.
- Continue to do the home-exercise program your physical therapist taught you, to help maintain your improvements.
- Continue to be physically active and stay fit.