One of the most common reasons people visit a physical therapist is to get relief from chronic back pain. While back pain can be caused by a variety of medical conditions, it is often the result of a bulging or herniated disc. Herniated discs can occur anywhere along the spine but typically affect the lower back area. Physical therapy patients may also be familiar with other terms used to describe a herniated disc, including: ruptured disc, bulging disc, or protruding disc, but the treatment for the condition is the same. It is estimated that about 60–80% of people will experience some level of lower back pain in their lives, and many may experience the issue due to a herniated disc. While they can be very painful, with the help of an experienced physical therapist, patients of all ages can find fast relief and learn to manage their pain with regular physical therapy and exercise.
Ask A Physical Therapist: What Causes a Herniated Disc?
Spinal discs are fluid-filled squishy jelly doughnuts of connective tissue, designed to work as shock absorbers, located between the bony vertebrae that help make up the spinal column. Made of a thick outer ring of cartilage and an inner gel-like substance, spinal discs work to allow the back to bend with ease. Additionally, your spinal column helps protect delicate nerves and your spinal cord. If the cartilage in your spinal disc somehow tears or is strained, the gel-like substance or nucleus can break through. This bulging or herniation can then put pressure on the nerves, resulting in intense pain. In fact, even small amounts of pressure on your spinal nerves can cause weakness, numbness, burning, tingling, and pain.
Herniated discs in the lower back can be particularly painful because they put pressure on the sciatic nerve, resulting in sciatica. The sciatic nerve is actually made up of several spinal nerve branches that travel from the spine and down into the leg. If the sciatic nerve becomes pinched, pain can radiate from the buttocks area, down through the back of the leg, and into the shin and foot. Luckily, physical therapy can work strengthen the muscles around the spine to take pressure off the nerves and reduce the pain.
When you are young, your spinal discs are made up of almost 80 percent water, keeping them springy and filling the space between the vertebrae. However, as you age, the tissues dehydrate, the water content in your spinal discs lowers. This causes the discs to become smaller and less pliable, which shrinks the space between the vertebrae, compressing surrounding tissues, and making you stiff and difficult for you to move. This in turn increases the risk of herniation, tears, and other defects. Some of the other common causes of herniated discs include:
- Excessive body weight or obesity overloading the discs holding up the spinal column
- Traumatic injury
- High-impact sports
- Repetitive twisting movements (workplace injuries)
- Heavy or incorrect lifting
Common Symptoms of a Herniated Disc
Symptoms associated with a herniated disc may vary depending on where the injured disc is located. Some of the most common symptoms you may experience include:
- Pain when bending, lifting, or twisting
- Burning, numbness, or tingling in the back, buttock, legs, and/or feet.
- Weakness in the core and legs
- A feeling of cold water running down the legs
- Pain that intensifies when sitting, coughing, sneezing, or bending
If you think you may have a herniated disc or other back pain issues, physical therapy can help. We recommend you consult with an orthopedic physician to assess your pain and to get a referral for physical therapy.
How Can Physical Therapy Help Improve Your Low Back Pain?
Physical therapy is a safe and non-invasive treatment option designed to help patients of all ages heal from the inside out. By using targeted highly-skilled manual therapy, stretching and strengthening exercises, and other tools, a licensed physical therapist can work to relieve back pain, reduce inflammation, stimulate blood flow, and restore your functional mobility.
Contact Insight Rehab today to learn more and schedule an appointment with one of our knowledgeable and highly skilled physical therapists.