Have you ever had back pain that feels like it will never go away?
You may be dealing with a very common spinal injury called disk herniation.
Also known as a protruding, prolapsed, or slipped disc, this injury is one of the most common causes of back pain that we see at The Brisbane Spine Clinic.
While some may jump straight into surgical methods to treat this injury, the physiotherapists at The Brisbane Spine Clinic have successfully managed many patients with disc herniation using non-invasive, non-surgical treatment options.
We believe surgery should be seen as a last resort as cases can be managed with a holistic approach.
Here we explain disc herniation and how physiotherapy may help.
What is a herniated disc?
Your spine is an intricate structure. It’s the literal backbone of your body. Your central support. Whenever you sit, stand, bend, twist and walk, your spine is working.
Your spine is made up of 33 vertebrae, running from your neck to your buttocks. A soft disc called an intervertebral disc (or spinal disc) sits between each vertebra. These discs are like little cushions. They act as shock absorbers between the bones, helping your spine move in all directions.
The discs themselves are made up of two parts. An outer cover and a soft jelly-like centre.
A herniated disc is when a disc’s outer cover is torn, and the jelly-like centre is pushed out.
This can happen to any disc, at any level of your spine.
Herniated disc symptoms?
When the jelly-like substance touches the structures outside of the disc, like the nearby spinal nerves, it can cause uncomfortable symptoms. These symptoms can vary, depending on the location and severity of the herniation. Your herniated disc may cause:
- Burning or stinging
- Pain or tingling in your neck
- Radiating pain
- Muscle Spasm
- Muscle weakness
- Changes in sensation
- Nerve irritation
What causes disc herniation?
As explained, disc herniation happens when the inner contents of your disc are pushed out, through a tear in the outer lining. So, what causes those tears?
There can be many causes, but most often tears in the lining of your spinal discs result from accidents, injuries or traumas. You may have had a fall, a car crash, a jet-skiing misadventure, or a collision on the sports field. For some, their spinal disc may herniate while doing something simple that puts strain on their lower back like twisting or turning or lifting a heavy object.
The greatest risk factor for tearing the outer layers of your spinal discs is age. As we age our discs can be more prone to injury. Some other risk factors include:
- Repetitive bending
- Sitting for long periods
- Congenital disorders
- Poor posture
- Inactive lifestyle
How is a herniated disc diagnosed?
If you think you might have a herniated disc you could make an appointment at The Brisbane Spine Clinic for an assessment with a physiotherapist. Your physiotherapist will assess the severity and type of pain you’re experiencing and its location. They may also assess your nerve function, range of motion and the strength of your muscles.
In some cases, an X-ray, CT scan or MRI may also be needed to help diagnose your injury.
Can herniated discs heal on their own?
Some herniated discs, with time and rest, may heal on their own, but they could happen again.
Assessment with a physiotherapist may help to determine if your disc herniation could resolve on its own and how likely it is to reoccur. Because your injury and how it will heal is very individualised, it’s extremely difficult to give a clear answer on whether it could resolve or reoccur without assessing you first.
Herniated or bulging disc?
Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish a herniated disc from other spinal problems. This is why a comprehensive examination is essential for diagnosing disc issues.
One common disc condition which can be easily confused with disc herniation is a bulging disc. If you have a bulging disc, rather than the jelly-like contents protruding out as in disc herniation, a bulging disc is deflated. Think of it like letting the air out of your car tires, the disc sags and bulges outwards.
The two conditions can cause very similar symptoms, however, bulging discs is a degenerative process, usually caused by age and can affect several vertebrae.
Herniated disc treatment with physiotherapy
Many disc herniations can be managed conservatively with physiotherapy. We aim to help you manage pain and get moving again.
Physiotherapy for disc herniation starts with a comprehensive examination of your symptoms, to find the true cause. We then individually tailor a treatment program for you. Your treatment program may include methods to manage your pain like, massage, heat, taping for support, and advice involving posture.
It may also involve exercises to help you increase strength and mobility, by strengthening the muscles around the spine and improving the stability of your core. Gentle movement may be encouraged like walking, cycling, swimming, and yoga.
You may also be advised to avoid certain activities during your recovery like heavy lifting and vigorous sports.
In some cases, herniated disc surgery might be needed to repair the disc. If you are experiencing severe physical limitations, intense pain, neurological symptoms or bowel and bladder changes, it is important that you seek medical treatment immediately. Some severe disc injuries need prompt surgical intervention to relieve pressure on the spine and the spinal nerves.
Even if you do end up having surgery, physiotherapy may still help you with your recovery and rehabilitation after.
The Brisbane Spine Clinic can help
If you are suffering from a disc herniation, and have seen very little improvement from previous treatment, contact us to book an assessment with one of our spinal consultants.
*Please note, the content within this article is for educational purposes only, and the treatment and advice mentioned may not be suited for everyone. Please consult a team member at The Brisbane Spine Clinic or your General Practitioner for specific advice.
Better Health Channel. (2022). Back pain – disc problems. www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/back-pain-disc-problems.
Cleveland Clinic. (2022). Spine Structure and Function. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/10040-spine-structure-and-function
Mayo Clinic. (2021). Bulging Disk Vs Herniated Disk: What’s the Difference? www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/herniated-disk/expert-answers/bulging-disk/faq-20058428
Physiopedia. (2023). Disc Herniation. www.physio-pedia.com/Disc_Herniation