Is the pain in your back caused by a herniated disc? Here’s how to know.

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A herniated disc refers to an issue with one of the rubbery cushions that are in between the vertebrae. A spinal disc has a soft jellylike interior with a tougher exterior.

Symptoms of a Herniated Disc

While most herniated discs occur in the lower back, they also can occur in the cervical area. Symptoms are dependent on where the disc is located and whether or not it’s compressing a nerve. Typically, one side of the body is affected. You may experience arm or leg pain, tingling or numbness or weakness. If the herniated disc is located in the back, you’ll likely experience pain in the buttocks, thigh and calf. If it’s located in the neck, you’ll likely experience pain in the arm and shoulder. The pain with a herniated disc can be sharp. Pain, numbness and tingling can radiate to other parts of the body, too. Keep in mind that you can have a herniated disc with no symptoms.

Risk Factors of a Herniated Disc

A herniated disc is often the result of aging and known as disc degeneration. With age, the disc becomes less flexible. Lifting heavy objects improperly can cause a herniated disc. Other risk factors include weight and genetics. Excess body weight causes more stress of the discs. And genetics can predispose one to developing a herniated disc.

Diagnosing a Herniated Disc

Your doctor can diagnose a herniated disc with a physical exam. Your doctor can perform a neurological exam to check muscle strength, reflexes, walking ability and the ability to feel touch. Imaging tests may be ordered to diagnose the cause of your pain. A CT scan shows cross-sectional images of the spinal column and can pinpoint a herniated disc. An MRI creates images of the body’s internal structures and can also confirm the location of a herniated disc.

Physical Therapy in the Treatment of a Herniated Disc

Physical therapy plays a critical role in recovery from a herniated disc. There are a variety of physical therapy techniques, including passive and active treatments. Passive treatments by a physical therapist include hot and cold therapy, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and deep tissue massage. Heat therapy increases blood flow to the target area and enhances healing. Cold therapy reduces inflammation and muscle spasm due to a herniated disc. TENS uses tiny electric currents to trigger endorphins and reduces pain. Deep tissue massage stimulates an increase in oxygen and nutrients for pain relief and healing.

A physical therapist will work with you to develop an active treatment program if you have a herniated disc. The focus is on flexibility, core stability and muscle strength. Core strengthening exercises will strengthen the back muscles for better support. Flexibility and stretching exercises will enhance movement. Exercises for muscle strengthening will create a strong structural support of the back.

All around, physical therapy can help you recover from a herniated disc and help prevent future injury to the spine. If you’re experiencing any symptoms of a herniated disc, it’s wise to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Likely, your doctor will recommend physical therapy.

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