How can a physical therapist treat a herniated disc? 6 PT methods

Your spine is a flexible column made of individual bones, or vertebrae, stacked on top of each other, each separated and cushioned by a flat, rubbery disc. These discs act like shock absorbers to allow your back to bend and twist with ease. Sometimes, the soft inner part of a disc bulges through a tear in the tough outer shell. When this happens, it’s called a herniated disc, and it can cause a lot of pain and discomfort. Approximately 2% of people experience a herniated disc each year. 

Herniated discs most commonly affect the lower back, or lumbar spine. as these discs experience the most stress during everyday activities. They can also happen in your neck, or cervical spine, too. The pain you experience can depend on where the disc is located and if it’s pressing on a nerve. A herniated disc in the lower back may cause pain that radiates down your leg, while a cervical disc herniation can lead to pain, numbness or weakness in your arm or hand. Over 85% of people who experience symptoms of herniated discs can see their pain resolve in eight to 12 weeks without any treatment. For those who have pain that lingers, the good news is that physical therapy can be a powerful tool to help manage a herniated disc. Physical therapists are experts in movement. They understand the intricate workings of the spine and its supporting muscles, and they can design a personalized program to help tackle your specific needs, including:

  • Managing pain.
  • Improving flexibility.
  • Improving strength.
  • Regaining lost function. 

Physical therapy methods that can help a herniated disc 

When designing your personalized treatment plan, your physical therapist will assess your condition and take your specific needs and recovery goals into account. Some physical therapy techniques that may be used in your treatment include:

  • Therapeutic exercises — Your physical therapist may incorporate therapeutic exercises into your routine. These are tailored exercises that target specific muscle groups. Strengthening your core muscles can help better support your spine and take pressure off the herniated disc. Exercises may also focus on improving your flexibility in tight muscles that may also be contributing to the problem.
  • Aquatic therapy Water exercises can be a lifesaver, especially during the initial pain phase. The buoyancy of water can help take the pressure off your joints, allowing pain-free movement while also strengthening your core and improving flexibility. Gentle stretches or leg raises in a warm pool become a much more pleasant experience than on land. 
  • Manual therapy Manual therapy is an umbrella term for a wide variety of hands-on techniques like joint mobilization, soft tissue manipulation and trigger point therapy. Joint mobilization is gentle, controlled joint movements guided by your physical therapist. These techniques involve applying specific pressures and movements to the affected joints in your spine. Joint mobilization can help improve your range of motion, reduce tightness and stiffness, and improve your body’s awareness of its position in space. Soft tissue manipulation can help ease tightness or tension in the muscles that help support your spine. Your physical therapist will use their hands to apply sustained pressure or slow strokes to help release tight muscles, improve blood flow to the area, promote healing and relieve pain. Trigger point therapy targets trigger points, or small, hypersensitive areas within your muscles that can cause pain even when not directly touched. Targeting these trigger points can help reduce pain and improve flexibility in areas that can be experiencing referred pain from your herniated disc. 
  • Electrical stimulation Electrical stimulation uses low-level electrical currents delivered via electrodes connected to a device like a TENS unit. These electrodes can be placed directly on the skin near or on the affected areas. The low-level currents can help block pain signals from reaching your brain, which can provide you with temporary pain relief. Electrical stimulation can also help promote relaxation in tight muscles surrounding the herniated disc. This can help improve your flexibility and reduce pain caused by muscle tension. It can also boost circulation to the injured area, which can help promote healing and tissue repair. 
  • Spinal decompressionSpinal decompression is a technique that uses a specialized table. It gently stretches your spine to help create more space between the vertebrae and can help relieve pressure on nerves and promote disc health. It may also help the herniated disc material to retract back into the disc space. 
  • Traction — Traction is a physical therapy technique that aims to gently create space between your vertebrae to help relieve pressure on a herniated disc. It can help reduce pressure on nerves and improve your mobility. Common types of traction include manual traction, mechanical traction and cervical collars. 

It’s important to note that your physical therapist will use modalities best suited for your individual situation. Not all techniques are suited to or used for everyone. 

If you suspect you may be experiencing a herniated disc, it’s important to consult a doctor or physical therapist for a proper diagnosis. Early intervention and a personalized treatment plan can significantly improve your recovery and may prevent future problems. 

Lattimore Physical Therapy can be your partner on your path to recovery from a herniated disc

At Lattimore Physical Therapy, we understand a herniated disc can be a frustrating and painful experience. Our licensed physical therapists understand the unique challenges of a herniated disc and can create a personalized treatment plan tailored to your specific needs. In our clinics, we have over 30 physical therapists with their Certification in Orthopedic Manual Physical Therapy (COMT). This certification elevates a physical therapist’s skills and knowledge in helping treat musculoskeletal conditions like a herniated disc. All our therapists are dedicated to providing evidence-based and compassionate care to help you improve your chances of a successful recovery. 

Contact our team today for more information or to schedule an initial appointment.

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