Does Physiotherapy Help Treat a Herniated Disc?

Person experiencing lower back pain from a herniated disc in need of physiotherapy treatment

What is a herniated disc?

In order to understand the impact of a herniated disc, it is important to know the structure of a spinal disc. A spinal disc is made up of a firm outer layer of cartilage, which protects the soft jelly-like centre. 

There are a total of 23 discs in your spine, spread out throughout the cervical (neck), thoracic (middle back), and lumbar (lower back) regions of the spine. These discs provide cushioning between the vertebrae (bones) that form the spine.

A herniated disc, also commonly referred to as a bulging, slipped or ruptured disc, occurs following a crack in the firm outer layer of cartilage. When this cracks it allows the disc’s soft centre to stick out. This slip is limited to just the immediate area of the crack, rather than the entire disc. 

A herniated disc is likely to cause pain and discomfort, with the inner cartilage sticking out and irritating nearby nerve roots. This irritation can be caused from the inner cartilage pushing on the nerve, or from inflammation of the nerve root caused by the herniation.

What causes a herniated disc?

Often when someone gets a herniated disc, they are unable to directly pinpoint the direct cause. While some people instantly feel pain or discomfort when their disc herniates, others may not notice anything for several hours or even days. That being said, here are some on the most common causes of a herniated disc:

Disc degeneration

Disc degeneration is most commonly a result of age related wear and tear. This degenerative process occurs gradually over time, as spinal discs lose their flexibility with age.

The decreased resilience of ageing discs increases the likelihood of injury. Consequently, even minor strains or twists come with the potential risk of disc rupture or tearing. 

Sudden movements

Sharp, sudden twisting, turning, or bending movements significantly increases the risk of a herniated disc.
Likewise, lifting heavy objects poses a risk.

Even when using safe lifting practices, overtime the sheer exertion involved in lifting heavy items can strain your lower back, leaving you more vulnerable to disc herniation.

Traumatic events

Traumatic incidents such as a fall or forceful impact to the back can also trigger a herniated disc. These events exert considerable force on the spinal structures, potentially causing a disc to rupture or protrude.

Though less common than degenerative or motion-related causes, traumatic events highlight that there are numerous circumstances that can cause a herniated disc.

What are the symptoms of a herniated disc?

Herniated discs predominantly affect the lower back, though they can occur in any of the spine’s 23 discs. As a consequence, where symptoms manifest is highly dependent on the location of the herniated disc. 

There are a variety of both common and rare symptoms that someone with a herniated disc might experience, including:

Pain and discomfort

Pain and discomfort are the most common symptoms associated with a herniated disc. In cases where the disc herniation occurs in the lower back, you will typically experience pain in your lower back, buttocks, thigh, calf, and foot.

In cases where the disc herniation occurs in the neck, you will typically experience pain in your neck, shoulder, shoulder blade, and arm. 

This pain and discomfort typically manifests on a single side of the body, dependent upon which nerves are affected by the protruding cartilage.

Pain can be exacerbated by a range of movements, including coughing, sneezing, or moving into certain positions. These movements can send sharp and burning shooting sensations through the affected limbs. 

Even simple activities such as sitting, standing, or walking short distances can amplify the pain and discomfort.

It is not uncommon for any pain and discomfort from a herniated disc to get worse when trying to sleep.
This is because when you lie down, it increases the pressure placed on your discs. Consequently this position then causes further nerve irritation.

Certain sleeping positions will place more pressure on your discs than others. The best sleeping position to avoid extra pressure on your herniated disc is dependent on its location.  At City Physio, after we assess your spinal disc herniation and have determined what part of the spine your herniated disc is located in, we can provide you with sleeping positions which place the least amount of pressure on your herniated disc.

Person exercising by running so that they do not get a herniated disc


Often accompanying a herniated disc in the lower back, sciatica is characterised by pain radiating along the sciatic nerve. Sciatica is characterised by shooting pains, numbness, or tingling sensations extending from the lower back through the buttocks and down one leg. 

Numbness or tingling sensations

Herniated discs can cause numbness or tingling sensations. You can experience tingling, aching, or even burning sensations in the affected area as a result of nerve compression or irritation.

Weakness in limbs

As a consequence of nerve compression associated with a herniated disc, you may feel a weakness in certain limbs. This weakness can negatively affect mobility and stability, making even daily activities difficult.

Loss of bladder or bowel control

While rare, severe cases of untreated herniated discs can result in bladder or bowel dysfunction. These symptoms signal the existence of spinal cord compression, or cauda equina syndrome which puts extreme pressure and swelling of the nerves at the end of the spinal cord. If you are suddenly experiencing incontinence or difficulty controlling bowel movements, it should be considered a medical emergency which requires prompt intervention to prevent permanent damage.

Early intervention is crucial in mitigating the risks associated with untreated herniated discs, including worsening symptoms or even permanent nerve damage. 

Initiating treatment promptly upon diagnosis reduces the likelihood of symptom progression and minimises the potential for serious complications to occur. 

By addressing the herniated disc early on, you can avoid the need for invasive interventions like surgery and mitigate the impact the disc herniation has on your overall health and well-being. 

At City Physiotherapy, we emphasise the importance of proactive management to address herniated discs effectively. Our dedicated team is committed to providing timely and comprehensive care to alleviate symptoms, restore functionality, and optimise long-term outcomes for our patients.

Can a physiotherapist tell if you have a herniated disc?

During a consultation with one of our physiotherapists at City Physiotherapy, a comprehensive physical examination is conducted to assess various factors, including range of motion, muscle strength, reflexes, and signs of nerve compression.

In most cases, physical examination and understanding your symptoms is enough to identify a herniated disc. In less overt cases, we can refer you for an X-ray to confirm the presence and extent of a herniated disc.

At City Physiotherapy, we provide comprehensive assessments and take a personalised approach with all of our patients.

Physiotherapist examining a patient with a suspected herniated disc

What are risk factors for developing a herniated disc?

  • Weight: Excess body weight places added stress on the spine, increasing the risk of disc degeneration and herniation.
  • Occupation: Occupations involving repetitive movements, prolonged sitting, or heavy lifting pose an increased risk for developing a herniated disc.
  • Genetics: Genetic predispositions can influence the structural integrity of spinal discs, potentially increasing susceptibility to herniated discs. People with a family history of disc degeneration or herniation may also be at a greater risk of developing a herniated disc.
  • Smoking: Smoking has been linked to accelerated disc degeneration and impaired disc healing, which in turn increases the risk of disc herniation.
  • Sedentary lifestyle: Little to no physical activity exacerbates spinal stiffness and weakens supportive muscles, increasing the risk of disc herniation.
  • Age: Age-related changes in spinal discs, such as decreased hydration and structural degeneration, increase the likelihood of herniated discs with advancing age.

By understanding these risk factors, you can adopt preventative measures and lifestyle changes to reduce the likelihood of developing a herniated disc. At City Physiotherapy we emphasise the importance of understanding your body, so you can be empowered to take charge of your wellbeing.

How can a physiotherapist help treat a herniated disc?

Thankfully surgical interventions are rarely necessary when it comes to herniated discs. In fact, following physiotherapy treatment, over 90 percent of people who developed a herniated disc fully recovered.

With a focus on alleviating pain, restoring mobility, strengthening muscles, and promoting overall spinal health and flexibility – physiotherapy plays a pivotal role in managing the symptoms of a herniated disc and assisting with rehabilitation. Our experienced physios are equipped with range of treatments including: 

Manual Therapy

Our physiotherapists use manual therapy techniques to help decompress the spine, alleviate pressure on affected nerves, and improve spinal alignment. Manual therapy techniques aim to reduce pain, restore mobility, and enhance functionality in people with herniated discs.

Dry Needling

The pain and discomfort from a herniated disc can cause a great deal of stress both physically and mentally. This often leads to the formation of stubborn knots or muscle spasms around the affected area, which only exacerbates discomfort.

Through the insertion of a fine needle through the skin, dry needling directly stimulates these knots. This prompts the muscles in these areas to relax, reducing pain and allowing for a greater range of motion.

In the case of a herniated disc, dry needling is an invaluable tool for pain relief, increased mobility, and reduced inflammation.

Rehabilitation Exercises

Our physiotherapists provide personalised rehabilitation programs for those suffering from a herniated disc. These programs aim to strengthen the muscles supporting the spine, improve flexibility, and enhance posture. Specific exercises target core stability, spinal alignment, and range of motion, facilitating recovery and preventing future injuries.

Education and Guidance

Our physiotherapists educate patients on proper body mechanics to prevent exacerbation of herniated disc symptoms. Preventative strategies are also emphasised, to reduce the risk of future herniated discs and spinal injuries. This can include creating ongoing exercise programs, suggesting lifestyle modifications, and implementing postural correction strategies tailored to your needs and lifestyle, with an aim to minimise spinal stress and promote long-term spinal health.

At City Physiotherapy, we take a wellness centred approach to treating herniated discs, prioritising the physical health and overall well-being of our patients. Our dedicated physiotherapists strive to manage symptoms effectively, and to empower patients to regain their mobility and to resume activities they love, through tailored treatment plans.

City Physiotherapy Adelaide: Herniated Disc Treatment

If you are suffering from a herniated disc, take a proactive step towards relief with City Physio. Our dedicated team of physiotherapists offer personalised treatment plans and advice crafted specifically for you. Don’t let your herniated disc hinder the life you want to lead—book an appointment with City Physio today. Reclaim control, rediscover comfort, and begin your journey towards herniated disc relief today.

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