Understanding Herniated Discs: What You Should Know

Understanding Herniated Discs: What You Should Know

Written by Allison Stringer, MS, PT, FAAOMPT, CHA

Back pain can sneak up on you when you least expect it. One minute you’re sitting comfortably in front of the TV, and the next you try to stand up, and ouch! – a sharp pain radiates through your lower back. Could you have a herniated disc? You might.

A herniated disc (also called bulged, slipped, or ruptured) is an injury of the spine (backbone). Typically, people who have a herniated disc complain of lower back pain, but they can also complain of leg pain, changes in sensation and/or weakness in one leg or both legs, pain with bending forward, pain with coughing, sneezing or straining, and pain that increases when sitting.

Although a herniated disc can be very painful, most people feel better with just a few weeks or months of treatment, in most cases, administered by a trained physical therapist.

What Causes Disc Injury

Certain factors may increase your risk of a herniated disc. These include:

  1. Improper Lifting, lifting heavy weight with a flexed or bent back will cause the inner part of the disc to push backwards.
  2. Repetitive activities that strain your spine, many jobs are physically demanding and require constant lifting, pulling, bending, or twisting.
  3. Prolonged driving, staying seated for long periods can put pressure on your spine and discs.
  4. Sedentary lifestyle, regular exercise is important to prevent medical conditions, including herniated disc.
  5. Smoking, thought to lessen the oxygen supply to the disc, causing it to break down quickly.

Signs of a Herniated Disc

Symptoms reported by patients include lower back pain, one sided leg symptoms. The leg symptoms can include burning, tingling, shooting pain, and weakness. Some may feel and look out of alignment “crooked”.  If you are having severe pain in your leg, experiencing loss of bowel or bladder control you should seek medical care immediately.

Often patients will have difficulty with rolling in bed, transferring from sit to stand, and with prolonged sitting and standing.

Tips for Herniated Disc Pain Relief

Movement, after the acute flare up subsides, frequently makes patients feel better.  Most people will also benefit from:

  • Lying down with a pillow under their knees or in side-lying with a pillow between their feet and ankles.

  • Ice for 10 minutes when lying on your back or side with support. Remember to keep a towel or pillowcase between the ice and the skin as you do not want to ice burn your skin.  Heat can be helpful, but most patients do better with ice.
  • Self-unloading techniques are another good way to reduce load and pain in the spine.


Disc Injury Prevention

  • Proper body mechanics when lifting, may prevent future injury and pain (see proper techniques below).

  • Different postures, movements and lifting all increase the pressure on the intervertebral disc. Sitting and especially slouch sitting, increases pressure on your herniated disc. Keep focus on good posture with standing and sitting. Avoid standing or sitting for long periods of time and avoid repetitive bending or reaching.
  • Ergonomics principles can also help prevent back injuries and maintain a healthy back. Ergonomics is the designing and arranging of things people use so that the people and things interact safely and efficiently. Below image shows the four main settings for an ergonomic office. For additional information, see more ergonomic tips.

While we cannot escape increasing load and pressure on our intervertebral discs, we can improve the way we sleep, sit, bend, and lift to allow the least amount of pressure on the spine.  Improving these activities and implementing regular exercise will go a long way to reduce pain and improve function.

Professional Physical Therapy has trained physical and occupational therapists that work with patients to customize an exercise program to help relieve pressure on your nerves and improve function. If you are experiencing low back pain or pain from a herniated disc, contact Professional Physical Therapy for an assessment and physical therapy evaluation, so you can get your life healthier and more comfortable today!

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