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  • Writer's pictureMiracle Rehab Clinic

Physical Therapy for Herniated Disk: Treatment and Exercises

A herniated disk is a disorder that affects millions of people globally and causes pain, discomfort, and limited movement. The most effective way of treating and recovering from this painful condition is physical therapy. To support and relieve pressure on the damaged disk, this conservative therapy aims to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine, reduce discomfort, and increase mobility.


Let's examine the various ways physical therapy can help manage and treat a herniated disk. These exercises are designed to help people live active, pain-free lifestyles by treating current symptoms and preventing further occurrences.

What Is a Herniated Disk?

A herniated disk, a slipped or ruptured disk, is a common spinal condition that can affect any part of the spine from the neck to the lower back. The spine is a stack of soft cushions (disks) sitting between the bones (vertebrae) that make up your backbone.

These disks have a gel-like center called the nucleus encased in a tougher outer layer called the annulus. These cushions help your back stay flexible. When a spinal disk tears in two and the soft interior material pushes through, the result is a herniated disk.


Disk degeneration, or age-related wear and tear, is the main cause of herniated disks. When the herniated material comes into contact with nearby nerves, it can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in an arm or leg, depending on the disk's location along the spine. The disks in the spine act as cushions between the vertebrae, maintaining the back's flexibility and allowing twisting and turning. A herniated disk can disrupt this function and lead to discomfort or mobility issues.


As people age, their spinal disks lose some water content, making them less flexible and more prone to tearing, even with a minor strain or twist. However, traumatic events like falls or blows to the back can also cause ruptured disks.


Treatment for a herniated disk varies depending on how bad the symptoms are. It can be treated with anything from painkillers and rest to physical therapy and, in extreme situations, surgery. Many patients can heal from a slipped disk without surgery by using conservative therapy techniques.

What Is a Herniated Disk

Credits: MayoClinic

What Are the Symptoms of Herniated Disk?

The signs and symptoms of a herniated disk can vary widely depending on its location in the spine and whether the disk is pressing on a nerve. Usually affecting the cervical spine (neck) or the lumbar spine (lower back), this disorder can cause symptoms to spread to other parts of the body.


In the lower back, a herniated disk might cause:

Lower back pain

This might be the first symptom you notice. The pain could be sharp or dull and may worsen when you bend, lift, or cough.



This is a sharp, shooting pain that travels from the lower back down the back of one leg, usually caused by a herniated disk pressing on the sciatic nerve.


Numbness or tingling

The leg or foot region related to the injured nerve may experience these symptoms.


Muscle weakness

You may have trouble standing or walking if you have weakness in one or both legs.


A herniated disk in the neck area may cause:

Pain in the neck

It may be isolated or spread to the hands, arms, and shoulders. It can get worse when you move your neck.

Arm pain

A herniated disk in the neck can produce a sharp pain that shoots down the arm, just like sciatica in the leg.

Numbness or tingling in the hand or arm

These symptoms are caused by the herniated disk irritating certain nerves.

Hand or arm weakness

This might make lifting objects challenging or carrying out tasks requiring skill.


Some people with a herniated disk may not experience any symptoms and only discover the condition during imaging tests for another reason. Once you do experience symptoms, though, they may have a major negative influence on your everyday routine and general well-being.  If you develop severe symptoms—like a sudden onset of increasing weakness, loss of control over your bladder or bowels, or excruciating pain, You should seek medical attention immediately.


What are the Main Causes of Herniated Disks?

Herniated disks are a common spine condition where the soft inner gel of the disk leaks out through a tear in the outer layer, often leading to pain and discomfort. This condition can have many different causes, most of which are connected to aging naturally or particular lifestyle decisions and behaviors. Let’s take a closer look at the primary causes of herniated disks:


Weight and Lifestyle

Carrying too much load strains the lower back disks, increasing the risk of herniation Just as an inactive lifestyle may raise the chance of a herniated disk by weakening the disks and muscles in the spine.

Bad Posture

Long-term bad posture can put too much strain on the spine and accelerate the wear and tear of the disks. This may eventually raise the chance of a disk herniation.

What Are the Symptoms of Herniated Disk

Credits: OrthoInfo


As we age, our disks naturally lose some of their water content, making them less flexible and more prone to tearing even with minor strains or twists. This process, known as disk degeneration, is a leading cause of herniated disks among older adults.


Some people may be more prone to have a herniated disk because of an inherited vulnerability to disk problems.


Lifting heavy objects improperly, sudden movements or traumatic injuries can cause the disks to rupture. Extreme stress can push the disk's inner material through a weak or torn outer layer, especially if the spine is not in the right position during an activity.

Repetitive Motions

Bending, lifting, twisting, and other repetitive motions that strain the spine can eventually wear down the disks and cause herniation.


Understanding these causes can help in preventing herniated disks.

How is a Herniated Disk Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a herniated disk involves a combination of medical history evaluation, physical examination, and imaging tests. This process helps medical professionals understand the symptoms and determine the exact location and severity of the herniated disk. Here's how the diagnosis typically works:

Medical History 

The doctor discusses your symptoms and medical history before making a diagnosis. You'll be asked about the type of pain you're feeling, where it is, and any injuries or activities that may have caused it.

Physical Examination

The physician will then conduct a physical examination. This involves checking your back for sore spots, analyzing your range of motion, and measuring your reflexes, muscular strength, and gait. Some tests, like stretching, may be carried out to determine the extent of damage.

Neurological Examination

Part of the physical exam may include a neurological examination to check nerve function. This involves testing your reflexes, muscle strength, walking ability, and the sensation in certain body parts.

Imaging Tests

If your doctor suspects a herniated disk, they may recommend imaging tests to closely examine your spine's structures. The most common tests include:

MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging)

An MRI is the most frequently used test to confirm a diagnosis of a herniated disk. It provides detailed images of the body's soft tissues, including the disks and nerves.

CT Scan

When an MRI is unavailable, a CT scan can be used to collect detailed images of the spinal column.


Although they are unable to detect herniated disks, X-rays can rule out tumors or fractures as potential reasons for back pain.


Diagnosing a ruptured disk can be easier for doctors if they follow these steps.


Common herniated disk symptoms

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

Physical therapy for herniated disks provides a non-surgical alternative to relief and rehabilitation, it is crucial in the treatment and management of herniated disks. It focuses on reducing pain, improving mobility, and strengthening the muscles around the spine, which can help support and relieve pressure on the affected disk. Here are some ways physical therapy helps:


  1. Pain Reduction: Physical therapists take different approaches to help manage pain. These could include manual therapy techniques like mobilization, massage, and traction, which can ease discomfort by releasing pressure on the nerve root. Additional treatments like ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and heat and cold therapy can be applied to lessen pain and inflammation.

  2. Strengthening Exercises: Core strengthening is a vital part of rehabilitation. Strong abdominal and back muscles support the spine, reducing the load on the herniated disk. Physical therapists tailor exercises to each patient's condition, gradually increasing the intensity as the patient's strength improves.

  3. Improving Mobility: People who slip their disks may feel stiff and have a restricted range of motion. Physical therapists create specific stretching exercises to help improve the flexibility and mobility of the spine and surrounding muscles, which can help make daily tasks easier and less painful.

  4. Posture Correction: Maintaining good posture helps ease the stress on the disks and spine. Physical therapists educate their patients on how to avoid more disk damage and discomfort by practicing good posture when standing, sitting, and going about their daily lives.


Physical therapy helps people recover from pain and problems by addressing the main causes. It's a holistic approach that often allows patients to return to their regular routines without needing surgery.


Physical Therapy for Herniated Disk: Treatment and Exercises

How Long Does a Herniated Disk Take to Heal?

The degree of damage, the patient's general health, and the selected course of therapy are just a few of the factors that might affect how long it takes for a herniated disk to heal. On average, most cases of disk herniation resolve between two to twelve weeks following injury. During this time, it's important to follow medical advice and engage in activities that support recovery, such as avoiding heavy lifting, maintaining good posture, and participating in prescribed exercises.


Surgical intervention may be required in cases that are more severe or that don't respond well to conservative therapy. While some people find great relief after surgery, most people need to heal for several weeks or months before they can resume their regular activities. In the end, a herniated disk heals in a unique way, therefore, it's important to work closely with specialists to create a customized treatment plan and track recovery progress over time.


How Long Does Physical Therapy Take for a Herniated Disk?

The length of physical therapy for a herniated disk can vary based on several variables, like the extent of disk herniation, the patient's health, and how well they respond to treatment. Typically, a physical therapy program for a herniated disk may last anywhere from a few weeks to several months


The frequency and duration of physical therapy sessions can vary based on individual needs and treatment goals. Some people may require more intensive therapy initially, with sessions multiple times per week, while others may benefit from a less frequent schedule.

How Long Does Physical Therapy Take for a Herniated Disk


Physical Therapy Exercises for Herniated Disk

Physical therapy exercises are integral parts of rehabilitation programs for people with a herniated disk. Below are some essential exercises frequently included in physical therapy regimens for herniated disks:


  1. Pelvic Tilts: Lie on your back with bent knees, then tilt your pelvis to flatten your lower back against the floor and arch it away. This helps align your pelvis and lower back, reducing strain.

  2. Cat-Cow Stretches: Get on all fours and arch your back like a cat, then drop your belly down and lift your head and tailbone like a cow. This stretch improves spine flexibility.

  3. Lumbar Stabilization Exercises: Engage your core muscles to keep your spine in a neutral position during leg lifts or planks. This strengthens the muscles supporting your spine, preventing further injury.

  4. Hamstring Stretches: Stretch your hamstring muscles to ease tension in your lower back. Simple stretches like lying down, sitting, and reaching for your toes can help.

  5. Trunk Rotations: While seated or standing, gently rotate your trunk from side to side, keeping your hips stable. This exercise improves spine mobility and reduces stiffness.

  6. Gentle Spinal Stretches: To relieve tightness and improve movement, perform stretches targeting specific areas of your spine, like seated side bends or gentle twists.

Bird Dog


Is Herniated Disk Preventable?

While herniated disks can occur due to factors like age, genetics, and injury, certain preventative measures can reduce the risk. Disk herniation can be avoided by maintaining a healthy weight, exercising frequently to strengthen your core muscles and support the spine, and adopting excellent posture. Herniated disk risk can also be decreased by employing safe lifting techniques, abstaining from smoking, which weakens spinal disks, and integrating ergonomic changes into everyday tasks. Even though it might not be avoidable, following these guidelines can greatly lower the chance of developing a herniated disk.


Is physical therapy for a herniated disk covered by insurance? 

If you’re in for a long recovery after an injury or surgical procedure, you probably wonder if insurance will pay for physical therapy. The answer is yes — most insurance plans will cover medically necessary physical therapy services provided by a licensed physical therapist. Insurance coverage for physical therapy will vary in terms of what procedures your provider will cover and what percentage of the cost they will pay

Can physical therapy prevent the need for surgery in cases of a herniated disk?

Yes, in many cases, physical therapy can help prevent the need for surgery for a herniated disk. Physical therapists can assist patients in regaining function and reducing the intensity of their herniated disk problems with customized exercises, manual therapy, and other methods. However, several elements, such as the degree of the herniation and the patient's reaction to treatment, affect how well physical therapy works to avoid surgery.

What should I expect during a physical therapy session for a herniated disk?

Once you start physical therapy for a herniated disk, your sessions will have several specific goals. First, you will be given exercises that attempt to relieve pressure on any compressed nerves based on your directional preferences. Expect evaluation, hands-on therapy, therapeutic exercises, modalities, education on body mechanics, and a home exercise program tailored to your needs and progress.

Risk factors and causes for a herniated disk


Final Thoughts

Physical therapy for herniated disks can be tough, but it's not the end of the road. Remember, there are ways to tackle it! Whether through exercises, meds, or sometimes even surgery, there's hope for relief. You can take charge of your health by staying active, watching your posture, and keeping those pounds in check. By teaming up with your docs and making smart choices, you can bounce back stronger.

So, don't let a herniated disk hold you back - with the right approach, you can return to feeling your best and enjoying life to the fullest!

 Visit Miracle Rehab Clinic and book your appointment now. Do not neglect your pain.

How is a Herniated Disk Diagnosed?

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