Back pain is an incredibly common condition that most adults will experience at some point. If the pain becomes chronic and severe enough to get in the way of normal activities, you may be suffering from a herniated disc. Spinal discs are sturdy, gel-like structures that play an essential role in cushioning the bones away from each other. They allow your spine the flexibility to bend, twist, carry a heavy load, and generally enjoy a healthy range of motion. When one of these discs develops a tear, it becomes possible for the fluid inside to leak out. This is called a hernia and it can lead to intense pain that centralizes on the lower back. You might also experience muscle spasms, leg pain, neck pain, and weakness in your arms or legs.
The symptoms of having a herniated disc can be disruptive and even potentially debilitating. The good news is that physical therapy has an excellent track record of helping patients manage or even reverse this condition. Physical therapy is designed to be a holistic solution that addresses any underlying issues that led to the herniated disc in the first place. Taking sensible steps towards a stronger and healthier spine makes it possible to not only fix the problem but also prevent it from happening again.
The Causes of a Herniated Disc
Spinal discs consist of an outer layer of cartilage that surrounds a thick gel. Each disc functions as a protective pad for the surrounding bones, which is why they’re often described as the shock absorbers of the spine. As the spinal discs become weaker because of wear and tear, they become susceptible to rupturing. Once the gel filling leaks out, it can begin affecting any structures in the spine that happen to be nearby. Spinal nerves are incredibly sensitive, and the added pressure being placed by this leaked substance can lead to a wide range of painful and uncomfortable symptoms.
It’s possible for a herniated disk to happen because of sudden trauma, like a fall. But it’s more common that the problem develops over time because of long-term risk factors like poor posture, obesity, participation in impact sports, repetitive twisting movements at work, or a sedentary lifestyle that leads to weak muscles.
Physical Therapy As An Alternative To Surgery
Most cases of a herniated disc are not severe enough to require surgery. Physical therapists are skilled medical professionals that offer a non-invasive treatment option with phenomenal success rates for relieving the symptoms of a herniated disc. Physical therapy is considered “the first line of defense” for a herniated disc, while surgery is the last resort.
Physical therapy for herniated disc patients consists of a customized treatment program of targeted exercises that relieve pain, strengthen the supportive muscles of the spine, and help the damaged disc heal. The tools of your physical therapist may also include Electric Muscle Stimulation (EMS) for pain relief, custom orthotics that help you walk properly, or manual treatments like massages and spinal manipulation. Every case is different and will require a unique approach, but the goal is to help herniated disc patients reduce pain, regain a normal range of motion and get back to normal life as quickly as possible.
Working With A Physical Therapist
During your first meeting, the physical therapist will review your medical history and conduct a comprehensive examination. Testing your mobility and range of motion will provide broad insights about the nature of your specific injury and how to get you on the road to recovery with a specific treatment plan. The immediate goal of the plan will be to decrease your pain symptoms.
If your posture is one of the underlying issues that contributed to a herniated disc, improving your posture will become an essential element of the treatment. Physical therapists place a lot of emphasis on proper body mechanics, which refers to how you sit, move, walk, or perform different tasks. Some common risk factors for a herniated disc include daily activities that place too much pressure on the spine, like slouching in your chair, lifting heavy objects incorrectly, or repetitive bending motions. The therapist will go over how to keep your spine safe during routine activities at work or as you go about your day. Learning the correct, safe ways to move the body is incredibly empowering for patients. These simple physical therapy techniques truly make a world of difference for your spine! Putting them into practice is a very effective way to reduce pain and begin healing from the herniated disc.
The comprehensive treatment plan will also include specific exercises designed to help your spine become stable and properly aligned. Having a healthy spine includes strong muscles and a good range of motion in your shoulders, abdomen, back, and hips. Your body is an interconnected system, which means it’s all designed to function together. The physical therapist will teach you beneficial exercises to stretch and strengthen many of the muscles that support the spine. This provides great pain relief because it reduces the strain on your spine and provides long-term protection from future disc damage.
Benefits of Physical Therapy
While there is no magic pill that can fix a herniated disc, physical therapy offers excellent results. This holistic, non-invasive program offers patients an effective alternative to undergoing surgery or relying on opioids for pain relief. Following the prescribed treatment plan will allow you to speed up the recovery process and return to normal life, often with as little as 2-8 weeks of physical therapy. Further, the body mechanic techniques you learn as part of your treatment are designed to become lifelong habits. You can also continue performing the beneficial pain-reduction and strengthening exercise on your own at home. Your physical therapist will provide you with great tools for not only healing from the herniated disc but being able to maintain a healthy spine for years to come.
Living with chronic back pain can be incredibly difficult, especially if it stops you from doing regular activities. Contact us to learn more about how physical therapy can help you heal from a herniated disc with a customized treatment plan.