Back Pain? How to Tell If It’s From a Herniated Disc

August 15th, 2020
How to Tell If It's From a Herniated Disc

Something is terribly wrong with you, but you’re not quite sure what it is. Strange neck pain, back pain, or extremity symptoms can indicate a variety of potential problems – including one or more herniated discs. 

How can you tell for sure whether you have this specific problem? If you do have a herniated disc, what can you do about it? These questions don’t have to add confusion and frustration to your physical woes. 

Here are some helpful tidbits of information from our physical therapist about herniated discs, their common symptoms, and how physical therapy can help you overcome your distress.

PT and herniated discs

A herniated disc can cause a lot of misery — but don’t panic. Most herniated discs can be treated successfully without surgery. Physical therapy can be instrumental in helping you reduce or eliminate your symptoms. 

Our physical therapist can recommend specific exercises to build up the strength in your back or neck. These exercises can counter any atrophy or weakness you’ve experienced due to your herniated disc. They can also reinforce your neck and back, lending these structures extra support and making them less vulnerable to future herniation. 

We may also recommend other non-invasive techniques to complement your physical therapy exercises and help you heal.

How are herniated discs treated?

Herniated discs can be successfully treated with physical therapy. At your initial appointment, one of our physical therapists will perform diagnostic tests to determine the root of your pain and verify that your pain is indeed being caused by a herniated disc.

Once the cause of your pain is clear, an individualized treatment plan will be created for you, based on your specific needs. This typically includes a series of stretches and exercises aimed at relieving your pain, improving your function, and promoting the natural healing process of your body. Additional treatments may be added as your physical therapist deems fit. These include:

  • Manual therapy
  • Ice and heat therapies
  • Traction
  • Class IV laser therapy
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS)
  • Education on posture and lifting mechanics

Your physical therapist will also advise you on any lifestyle changes that may be recommended in order to prevent herniated discs from developing again in the future. Physical therapy is one of the safest, quickest, and most effective ways to treat herniated discs. It is a holistic and non-invasive approach that, in many cases, has been able to eliminate the need for harmful drugs or surgical intervention.

How can I tell if I have a herniated disc?

Herniated discs don’t always cause symptoms, but the symptoms that they do cause can help you troubleshoot the nature of your problem. The most common symptoms include:

  • Symptoms that began after you gained a lot of weight (since obesity is a risk factor for disc problems)
  • Symptoms that started shortly after an accident, extreme twisting of the neck or back, or an attempt to lift a heavy object
  • An inability to walk more than a few steps without pain
  • Pain, tingling, or loss of sensation in a limb (the result of a herniated disc pressing against nerve roots)
  • Back pain that seems to grow worse when you sneeze, cough, stand up, or sit down
  • Neck pain (if it’s a cervical disc)

If your symptoms seem to be soothed by massage, heat, or cold, you’re more likely to have a strained muscle or tendon than a herniated disc. 

Ultimately, the most accurate way to confirm a herniated disc is through medical imaging. X-rays can reveal not only the abnormal shape of a herniated disc, but also whether the herniation is pinching a nerve.

So – what are herniated discs?

“Herniated disc,” “slipped disc,” and “ruptured disc” are all just different ways of describing the same physical problem.  Your spinal discs are squat discs of tissue that lie between the vertebrae. 

A disc consists of a fluid-filled center called the nucleus pulposus encased in an outer structure called the annulus fibrosus. This arrangement makes the disc both tough enough and spongy enough to absorb shocks.

Unfortunately, that toughness has its limits. Sometimes a disc will lose hydration over time, causing the nucleus pulposus to shrink. The disc loses its height, which stresses the spinal joints and may cause the disc to bulge outward. 

Eventually these changes can cause part of the annulus fibrosus to balloon and tear open; this is herniated disc. Herniated discs can also occur suddenly due to an auto accident, workplace accident, or sports injury that traumatizes the spine.

Contact us today

Are you ready to learn more about herniated discs and get the answers your neck or back needs? Contact our physical therapist today at Middlesex Rehabilitation & Sports Injury Center to schedule an appointment!

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