Illustration of spine highlighted in red, person holding lower back with pain area highlighted in red, patient receiving manual therapy from a physical therapist, physical therapist guiding a patient through strengthening exercises, physical therapist giving treatment to patient who has back pain, golfer holding his lower back with pain area highlighted in red, woman with neck pain holding her neck, sports equipment and fresh fruit pictured against a wooden background, illustration of a normal versus a herniated disc
Herniated discs regularly cause people to cancel plans, miss work, and stay confined to the bed or couch.
Not only are herniated discs often brutally painful – they can also cause other alarming symptoms such as numbness, tingling, weakness, and even incontinence (in severe cases).
Disc herniation means that the center of a disc (the rubbery shock absorber located between each spinal bone) has pushed through the outer portion of the disc. This displacement may cause pressure on nearby nerves which is why many people feel pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness when disc herniation occurs.
Disc herniation can take place anywhere throughout the spine, but most commonly occur in the lower back or neck.
When the pain is severe, some people turn to painkillers, ice/heat therapy, and resting for symptom relief. While these actions can help some people feel temporary relief, the disc will likely worsen or get reinjured if these are the only steps taken towards treatment.
Symptom relief therapies such as painkillers and rest are aimed at reducing the symptoms rather than fixing the cause and healing the injured area. People who continuously treat the symptoms of the disc rather than the cause can wind up in a vicious cycle of reinjury and sporadic pain.
On the bright side, there are plenty of effective herniated disc treatment options that can alleviate the symptoms while also healing the injured area and preventing reinjury.
Here are some of the most effective treatment options for herniated discs:
Seeing a herniated disc specialist will help you to get rid of your herniated disc symptoms once and for all.
Physical therapists who specialize in spine conditions (such as herniated discs) are experts in diagnosing and treating the cause of injuries. These healthcare professionals will provide you with a combination of safe treatments tailored to your specific condition and lifestyle.
A physical therapist will assess the patient for mobility issues, flexibility problems, muscular imbalances, and other movement-related factors such as posture and lifting techniques. Usually, herniated discs are caused by underlying issues such as muscle weakness, poor posture, and lack of mobility.
Once the underlying cause is determined, physical therapists may combine the following treatments to cure your herniated disc:
These exercises will target weak muscles and repair damaged tissue caused by the injury. Strengthening exercises are often key to minimizing the risk of repeated disc herniation.
Herniated discs are sometimes a result of poor flexibility. Your physical therapist will guide you through flexibility exercises that target your least flexible areas.
Poor joint mobility can lead to disc herniation, and disc herniation can further decrease mobility. Your physical therapist will provide you with mobility exercises that can restore your full range of motion and ease pain.
This treatment may include manual techniques such as myofascial release or spinal manipulation. A physical therapist who practices manual therapy can manually loosen tight muscle tissue and fix spinal alignment issues to alleviate pain and speed up healing.
During a physical therapy session, your physical therapist may provide you a heating device (such as a heating pad) to increase the circulation of healing nutrients to the injured area before performing physical therapy exercises.
At the end of the session, your physical therapist may provide you with cold therapy (such as an ice pack) to reduce inflammation. Many physical therapy patients enjoy the soothing effect of cold therapy after a healing physical therapy session.
Physical therapists will educate patients about how to overcome their herniated disc injury through techniques such as modifying activities, wearing proper footwear and apparel, eating a balanced diet, and at-home treatments that can rehabilitate the injury and reduce the symptoms.
While medications are not a permanent solution for herniated discs, certain medications are proven to quicken the recovery process in patients with severe symptoms.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen, naproxen, or aspirin can quicken the healing process in the acute phase of injury by decreasing inflammation.
Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications should not be taken long-term. Consult with your doctor to learn about the best ways to use over the counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications for herniated disc treatment.
Corticosteroids are another type of medication that can reduce inflammation. Because corticosteroids are more potent than over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories, they are recommended only for more severe herniated discs that don’t respond to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories.
Some doctors may prescribe muscle relaxants, which are medications that reduce the painful muscle spasms that can occur after disc herniation. Because muscle spasms often limit movement, taking muscle relaxants can help some people have a greater range of motion during the acute stage of injury.
Muscle relaxants do have side effects and are generally recommended for patients who can’t perform basic activities such as going to work due to the pain. Without muscle relaxants, the pain from muscle spasms usually resolves within one to two weeks.
If you are experiencing very severe pain and limitations from your herniated disc, you may consider seeing a doctor for a prescription pain reliever. Prescription pain relievers won’t heal the injury – they will simply ease the feeling of pain.
Prescription pain relievers should only be considered a “last resort” as far as medication goes, because they carry a greater risk of side effects and won’t repair damaged muscle tissue. Use caution if you decide to take prescription pain relievers, as these medications may temporarily mask the pain and therefore allow you to perform movements that worsen your herniated disc without your knowledge.
While inflammation-reducing medications are effective in speeding up the healing process, medications are most effective when used in combination with other treatments such as physical therapy.
If you are overweight, your spine can get pulled out of alignment due to the pressure of excess weight. This means that you are more likely to suffer back pain and conditions such as herniated discs.
A herniated disc is often more painful in people who are overweight because the extra weight on the spine can contribute to nerve damage.
To lose weight, consider visiting a healthcare professional who specializes in weight loss.
Personal trainers are known for helping many people lose weight through a personalized exercise program that may include nutritional advice. Joining an exercise group, such as a walking or sports club, is also a fun and encouraging way for many people to get active and lose weight.
Surgery is, of course, a last resort but is an effective treatment for most herniated discs that are not repaired from the above treatments.
If you have tried physical therapy, medications, and weight management and still do not feel any symptom reduction for more than six weeks, you may benefit from a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon.
The best orthopedic surgeons will recommend surgery only if you have severe symptoms that affect your lifestyle (such as persistent pain, tingling, weakness, or incontinence) that aren’t relieved through other treatments.
Surgery is used to remove the herniated disc (or at least, the part of the herniated disc that is causing your symptoms) and stabilize the spine so that you can function normally again.
Most orthopedic surgeons highly recommend starting physical therapy before surgery and then continuing with physical therapy after surgery to make your recovery time as short as possible.
Are You Looking to Feel Relief, Fast? We Can Help
At Back in Motion Sport & Spine Physical Therapy, we regularly help patients feel lasting relief from spine conditions such as herniated discs.