Expert Physiotherapy, Chiropractic, and Orthotics Services for Optimal Health

Herniated Disc? Physiotherapy Can Help…


Posted by Dr. Scott Wilson | 15-Mar-2023

  • Herniated discs are a common spinal problem. They’re caused by factors such as age-related wear and tear, injury, or repetitive movements that put stress on the spine. Symptoms can range from mild to severe and can include pain, numbness or tingling, weakness, loss of reflexes, and bowel or bladder dysfunction.
  • Physiotherapy is a non-invasive treatment option. It can help relieve pain, promote healing, and prevent further injury in individuals with herniated discs.
  • Exercise therapy is often a key component of a physiotherapy program for treating herniated discs. However, you should consult a healthcare professional before starting an exercise program and follow their guidance. 

A herniated disc is a very common cause of back pain in Canada. It’s estimated that approximately 80% of Canadians will experience back pain at some point in their lifetime and a significant portion of these cases are due to herniated discs. In addition to being very common, a herniated disc can also be very painful. Often, this pain is described as sharp or burning. However, symptoms can also include a radiating tingling, numbness or weakness.

In extreme cases, surgery and medication are sometimes necessary to address the condition and provide relief. However, most cases do not require surgery and relief can be found using a non-invasive treatment option like physiotherapy. Physiotherapists focus on restoring function and reducing pain through exercise, stretching, and manual therapy. 

If you’re experiencing mild to severe symptoms due to a herniated disc, understanding how physiotherapy can help may be the first step toward finding the relief you need. Here’s what you need to know.

What Exactly Is A Herniated Disc?

A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when the soft, gel-like centre of the spinal disc protrudes through a tear in the outer layer of the disc. This can put pressure on nearby nerves, which, in turn, causes pain, numbness, or weakness in the affected area. 

A herniated disc can occur in any part of the spine, but is most commonly seen in the lower back (lumbar spine) or neck (cervical spine) regions. They can be caused by a variety of factors, including age-related wear and tear, injury, or repetitive movements that put stress on the spine. Other factors, such as genetics, obesity, smoking, and poor posture, can increase your risk of developing a herniated disc.

What Are the Most Common Symptoms?

In some cases, where there is little or no pressure on the adjacent nerves, you may experience little to no symptoms at all. However, in most cases, a herniated disc causes a sharp or shooting pain in the affected area. It can also cause numbness or tingling sensations, and weakness in the muscles served by the affected nerves. This pain can interfere with daily activities and, in some cases, can even be debilitating. Here are the common symptoms of a herniated disc:

  1. Pain: The most common symptom of a herniated disc is pain. The pain can be mild to severe and may be localised to the area of the herniated disc or may radiate to other parts of the body, such as the arms, legs, or buttocks.
  2. Numbness or Tingling: A herniated disc can also cause numbness or tingling in the affected area. This can occur in the arms, legs, or other parts of the body, depending on the location of the herniated disc.
  3. Weakness: If the herniated disc is putting pressure on a nerve that controls muscle function, it can cause weakness in the affected area. This can make it difficult for you to perform everyday activities, such as lifting objects or walking.
  4. Loss of Reflexes: In some cases, a herniated disc can cause a loss of reflexes in the affected area. This can occur in the arms or legs and may be a sign of nerve damage.
  5. Bowel or Bladder Dysfunction: In rare cases, a large herniated disc can put pressure on the nerves that control bowel or bladder function. This can cause difficulty with bowel or bladder movements, or incontinence.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention right away. A healthcare professional can review your medical history, perform a physical exam, and order diagnostic tests to determine whether or not you have a herniated disc. From there, they can develop an appropriate treatment plan to help with relief, recovery and prevention. 

How Can Physiotherapy Help With A Herniated Disc?

The most appropriate treatment option will depend on the severity of the herniation and your specific symptoms. In most cases, physiotherapy is an effective non-surgical treatment option. It can help relieve pain, promote healing, and prevent further injury. Here are some of the techniques that your physiotherapist may use to help with your recovery:

  1. Manual Therapy: This technique involves hands-on manipulation of the affected area. Manual therapy is effective at helping to reduce pain, improve range of motion, and promote healing.
  2. Exercise Therapy: Physiotherapists may prescribe specific exercises to strengthen the muscles that support the spine. Exercise therapy can also help you improve flexibility and reduce pain.
  3. Hot and Cold Therapy: Applying a hot or cold compress to the affected area can help reduce pain and inflammation.
  4. Traction: Traction involves applying a gentle pulling force to the spine. This can help relieve pressure on the affected disc and reduce pain.
  5. Electrical Stimulation: Electrical stimulation can help reduce pain and improve muscle strength and control.

Physiotherapy has several benefits especially when compared to other treatment options such as surgery or medication. Physiotherapy is non-invasive and does not involve the use of medication, which can have side effects. It can also be a more cost-effective and less risky option than surgery. 

How Can Exercise Help With A Herniated Disc?

Exercise can be an effective treatment option for herniated discs and is often a key component of a Physiotherapist’s treatment plan for herniated discs. Here are some of the ways that exercise can help:

  1. Strengthens Muscles: Exercise can help strengthen the muscles that support the spine, which can help reduce pressure on the affected disc and relieve pain.
  2. Improves Flexibility: Tight muscles can contribute to back pain, and exercise with proper stretching can help improve flexibility and reduce muscle tension.
  3. Promotes Healing: Exercise can help increase blood flow and oxygen to the affected area, which can promote healing and reduce inflammation.
  4. Improves Posture: Poor posture can contribute to back pain, and exercise can help improve posture and reduce the risk of future injury.

It’s important to note that not all exercises are suitable for individuals with a herniated disc. In fact, certain exercises can actually worsen symptoms. This is why it’s important to work with a qualified healthcare professional to develop a safe and effective exercise program.

Are There Any Exercises That Should Be Avoided?

If you’re struggling with a herniated disc, there are certain exercises that you should avoid. That’s because these exercises can put unnecessary stress on your spine and worsen your symptoms. Here’s an overview of the types of exercises you should avoid when recovering from a herniated disc:

  1. High-Impact Activities: Exercises that involve jumping or running, such as basketball or jogging, can put a lot of stress on the spine and worsen your symptoms.
  2. Heavy Lifting: Exercises that involve heavy lifting, such as weightlifting or deadlifts, can also put a lot of stress on the spine and increase your risk of further injury.
  3. Twisting or Bending Exercises: Exercises that involve twisting or bending of the spine, such as sit-ups or yoga poses like the forward fold, can exacerbate your symptoms.
  4. Exercises That Require You To Lie On Your Stomach: Exercises that require you to lie on your stomach, such as swimming strokes that involve the freestyle or breaststroke, can put a lot of pressure on the spine and worsen your symptoms.
  5. Exercises That Cause Pain: Any exercise that causes pain should be avoided, as this can be a sign that you are aggravating your herniated disc.

As always, it is important to work with a qualified healthcare professional. Your Physiotherapist can develop a safe and effective exercise program that’s tailored to your unique condition and limitations.

FAQs About Herniated Discs & Physiotherapy 

Q1: Can a Physiotherapist fix a herniated disc?

A physiotherapist can’t “fix” a herniated disc, but they can help manage the symptoms, promote healing and prevent further damage. This is done by combining manual therapy, exercise and other therapies, along with education.

In some cases, physiotherapy may be enough to relieve symptoms and avoid surgery. However, if the herniation is severe, surgery may be necessary. It’s important to consult with a healthcare professional to determine the best course of treatment for your specific condition.

Q2: How long does it take physical therapy to work for a herniated disc?

The amount of time it takes for physical therapy to work varies. Other factors include the severity of the condition and  factors such as age, overall health, and compliance with the treatment plan. Some sufferers experience relief just a few weeks after starting. However, it may take several months of consistent therapy and exercises to achieve significant improvement. It’s important to follow your treatment plan as prescribed by your Physiotherapist.  You should also be sure to communicate any concerns or changes in symptoms during the therapy process.

Q3: What is the fastest way to heal a herniated disc?

Healing a herniated disc can involve a combination of treatments including manual therapy, exercise therapy, hot & cold therapy, traction and electrical stimulation. In some cases, it may require medication and surgery. However, the specific treatment plan depends on the severity of the herniation and the quality of your overall health. The rate of recovery also depends on compliance with your treatment plan and avoidance of aggravating activities. A healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and good posture can also help prevent future herniated discs.

Q4: Can a herniated disc fully heal?

In some cases, and with Physiotherapy, a herniated disc can fully heal on its own without the need for surgery or other invasive treatments. However, it may take several weeks or even months for the healing process to occur. Also, the extent of healing depends on various factors. This includes the location and severity of the herniation, your age and overall health, and the treatment received. It’s also possible to experience chronic pain or other symptoms even after the disc has healed.

Taking Control of Your Health…

A herniated disc can cause significant pain and discomfort, but there are effective treatment options available. Physiotherapy is one such option. Through a combination of manual therapy, exercise therapy, and hot & cold therapy, your Physiotherapist can help to relieve pain, promote healing, and improve your mobility. By taking a proactive approach, you can return to your normal activities with less pain and discomfort. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with a herniated disc, contact us today and let our team of highly skilled Physiotherapists show you why, at Physiomed, Healthier Starts Here.

Dr. Scott Wilson

Dr. Scott Wilson is the Founder & Chairman of Physiomed; one of Canada’s largest franchised networks of inter-disciplinary healthcare clinics. A graduate of Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College, Dr. Wilson founded Physiomed in 1994 and has since grown Physiomed to over 30 clinics in Southern Ontario and British Columbia. With hundreds of practitioners from over a dozen disciplines, Dr. Wilson and Physiomed have helped over 100,000 Canadians with physiotherapy, chiropractic, massage therapy, orthotic therapy, compression therapy and clinical conditioning as part of a program of rehabilitation and health optimization. In addition to helping patients improve their physical and mental well-being, Dr. Wilson has also mentored hundreds of practitioners to provide better care while enjoying more fulfilling careers. He is also a keynote speaker on many health related topics including how physiotherapy, chiropractic and health & wellness treatment can help with stress, weight loss, and unlocking the true potential within to achieve lasting physical well-being.

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