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How can physical therapy help a herniated disc?

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Written By Greg Specht

A herniated disc is very painful to experience. Unfortunately, this kind of injury to the spine is quite common. Thankfully, there are ways to treat herniated discs. Physical therapy is often prescribed to help treat the symptoms of a herniated disc. This guide covers what a herniated disc is, what physical therapy is, and how physical therapy can help people dealing with back and neck pain from a herniated disc. Read on to learn more about whether physical therapy could be the right option for you!

What is a Herniated Disc?

So, what is a herniated disc? A herniated disc is an injury of the spine. Your spine is made of bones called vertebrae. The vertebrae in the spine have tissue between them that acts as a cushion, and these are the discs. When one of these discs breaks or tears, this is called a herniated disc.

A herniated disk can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. It can cause you to experience pain in your neck, arms, shoulders, back, legs, and even your feet. The kind of symptoms you may feel with a herniated disc can include pain, tingling in the legs or spine, weakness in the muscles, and muscle tension or spasms.

Common Causes of Herniated Discs

Herniated discs are a very common problem. Many people, especially those who are middle-aged, experience them. There are several different causes of herniated discs. The following section covers some of the most common causes of a herniated disc.


Age is one of the most common causes of herniated discs. As we age, there is a lot of wear and tear on our spinal discs. They can start to disintegrate or weaken the older we get. People who are between the ages of 30 and 50 have an increased risk of developing herniated discs, though they may be seen in people of any age.

Being Overweight

Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of developing a herniated disc. Excess weight can increase your risk at a lower age as well, but if you are overweight as well as older, your risk is that much more increased. Extra weight on your body puts added strain on the spinal discs, and this can cause herniated discs.

Repetitive Movements

Another common cause of herniated discs is repetitive movements. Often, those who have physically demanding jobs where they have to do strenuous and repetitive movements can develop herniated discs. These jobs usually require a lot of bending, pulling, lifting, twisting, or other strenuous activities. People who do these kinds of jobs long-term are at a higher risk of developing a herniated disk.

Sudden Strain

One other common way people can develop a herniated disk is doing an activity that puts sudden strain on their spine. A sudden strain, or acute muscle strain, can cause a herniated disc. This usually happens when someone is improperly lifting a heavy object. If they are lifting something that is too heavy for them or lifting from their back or groin instead of their legs, it can result in a herniated disc. Another way is by doing strenuous exercise without warming up properly first.

Does a Herniated Disc Cause Pain?

Herniated discs can cause a person to feel pain, weakness, or numbness in different areas, depending on where it is located. The following section describes the different types of feelings and pains that can come with a herniated disc.

Neck Pain

If you have a herniated disk in your neck, you are likely to experience neck pain. The type and severity of pain can vary. It can be a dull, aching pain or a sharp, burning pain. You may feel pain in your shoulder or arm, as well. You can also experience muscle spasms or cramping in these areas. Thankfully, there is treatment available. A neck pain physical therapist can help you get relief from these symptoms.

woman in swansea holding her neck in pain

Back Pain

A herniated disc can cause you to have pain in your back. Back pain, spasms, and tension are very common symptoms of herniated discs. The type of pain you feel and the severity of that pain can vary. Herniated discs can cause pain in the upper back, lower back, buttocks, legs, and feet, depending on the location of the herniated disc. A back pain physical therapist can assist you with treating these painful symptoms of a herniated disc.

What is Physical Therapy?

What is physical therapy, exactly? Physical therapy is a non-invasive treatment that helps ease pain, makes it easier to move, and makes it easier to function in day-to-day life. It is usually prescribed by a doctor after a patient has suffered an injury or is recovering from surgery. Usually, people visit a physical therapist after being referred by a doctor, but you can also make an appointment with a physical therapist on your own.

During your first appointment, you will be evaluated by the physical therapist. They will go over your injury and your medical history. They will talk with you about what you can and can’t do physically and what type of movements cause you pain. It is important for the physical therapist to talk about these things with you so they can treat you. They’ll also discuss your goals and what you should expect from your physical therapy sessions.

The physical therapist will discuss the treatment plan with you. They’ll ask you what you wish to accomplish in physical therapy. Some people want to be able to walk or run again, for example. They’ll explain how often you will come in for a session and for how long, keep in mind that this may change over the course of your treatment. Physical therapy sessions are usually around 30-90 minutes long. Typically you can expect to do these sessions 2-3 times per week for about 6-8 weeks, but this can vary.

How Does Physical Therapy Help a Herniated Disc?

Physical therapy is a very effective treatment for a herniated disc. Physical therapy can greatly improve the symptoms of herniated discs. Usually, this treatment is prescribed by a doctor to help relieve pain, increase strength, and relieve muscle tension. Physical therapy typically starts with an exam and a discussion of your injury and the symptoms. There are several ways that physical therapy can help those who suffer from herniated discs.

Treating a Herniated Disc with Physical Therapy

Often, the physical therapist will work with you to relieve you from the acute pain that comes from a herniated disc at first. There are a few treatments your physical therapist may choose to do to help you with the symptoms, including:

  • Deep tissue massage.
  • Hot and cold therapies.
  • Hydrotherapy.
  • Exercise.
  • Stretches.

There are several different stretches and exercises that the physical therapist may have you do. Usually, these exercises are supervised by the physical therapist at first and then may be continued at home between appointments to continue building strength, flexibility, and mobility.

Physical Therapy Stretches for a Herniated Disc

There are many different types of stretches and exercises that can help to relieve the symptoms of a herniated disc. These are usually gentle exercises and are an important part of physical therapy. Building physical therapy exercises into your daily and weekly routines can help you to speed up progress and symptom relief. Here are a few physical therapy exercises that are commonly used to help people with a herniated disc:

Standing Lumbar Extension

For this stretch, stand straight with your hands on your hips. Gently push your hips forward and hold the position for a few seconds. Repeat 10 times or until you feel some relief. This stretch can help lessen the pressure on your spinal discs.

Prone on Elbows

For this exercise, lie down on your stomach. Place your arms down on the floor near your shoulders. Push your torso up, raising your back and shoulders, keeping your arms and hands on the floor. Hold the position for 30 seconds. Repeat 5-10 times or until you feel relief. This exercise can help you realign your discs.

Woman with lumbar herniated disc doing a prone on elbow stretch for physical therapy.

Neck Rotation

This stretch can help relieve neck pain. First, stand straight and tall with your shoulders relaxed. Gently turn your head to the side, not twisting or looking behind you. Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat for the other side. Repeat 3-5 times or until you feel some relief.

These are just a few exercises you can do. There are many more for both back and neck pain, and recommendations may vary based on your specific symptoms. Ask a doctor or a physical therapist for more information on stretches and exercises you can do to find relief from neck back pain from a herniated disc.

Physical Therapists for Herniated Discs

Physical therapy is an effective treatment for herniated discs in the neck and the back. A physical therapist for herniated discs can help you deal with the painful symptoms of a herniated disc. Physical therapy can help relieve pain, build muscle strength, and help with tension in your back and neck. Specht Physical Therapy can help you with all of your physical therapy needs. Contact us today to request an appointment.