Herniated disc - overview, symptoms

A herniated disc is a problem with one of the rubbery spinal discs that stack up to make your spine. Those rubbery spinal discs are a bit like a jelly donut, with a softer center inside a tougher exterior. The problem is that sometimes that softer center pushes out through a tear in the exterior. That's what medical professionals call a herniated disc.

What happens when you get a herniated disc? Well some people experience pain, numbness, or weakness in an arm or leg. Others experience no symptoms at all.

What does a herniated disc feel like?

Discs themselves have pain receptors, so injury or strain to the tissue of the disc can be painful and cause pain that is felt in the spine itself. If that disc begins to compress the nearby nerve root, it can cause radiating pain outward away from the spine, typically into the arms and upper back (if it is a cervical disc), or into the buttocks or legs (if it is a lumbar disc).

What causes a disc to herniate?

First, we must understand that the disc itself is fluid filled. That fluid is surrounded by layers of tough tissue. Imagine a jelly filled water balloon. Increased pressure on one side of the water balloon will cause the jelly filling to begin to move the opposite direction.  If this occurs with enough force, pressure, or time, it will begin to stress the outer materal of that balloon.  In the same way prolonged poor posture or repeated movements that go unchecked can begin to weaken the outer wall of the disc and eventually the fluid will push out enough to cause the wall to bulge outward.   

Do I need an X-ray or MRI?

An X-ray will not give you much information about a disc other than a basic estimate of disc height. An MRI does give us some information about the disc and can find a disc herniation or bulge. But we have to remember that close to 70% of the pain-free population has abnormal findings such as disc bulges and don’t have any symptoms. The difference is that the MRI cannot determine how that disc bulge or herniation will change with different movements. A physical therapy evaluation can determine what types of movements will make you worse and which ones will make you better.  A PT will be able to prescribe movements and exercises that reduce pressure on the disc and allow for healing. An MRI can often lead to more referrals and more expensive medical costs.

Herniated disc treatment options

Disc issues are often recurrent, meaning they come back. That is why it is imperitive that you learn to manage and prevent it. This course of action looks different for each patient but often a good option is to visit your local physical therapist. They will be able to develop a custom treatment program for you, which will be geared towards healing a herniated disc completely, not just dulling the pain you are experiencing right now.

What does physical therapy treatment for a herniated disc look like?

First, a thorough evaluation must be completed to determine the root cause, whether it be posture, poor body mechanics, weakness, muscle imbalance etc.. Determining the most appropriate movements, stretches and exercises to first unload and decompress the disc, and then stabilize the problem area to prevent it from happening again.

Our end goal is that you are able to walk away pain-free in the short term and also possess the know-how to avoid disc issues in the future.

About Rise Physical Therapy

Hi, and welcome to Rise Physical Therapy.

Rise exists because we believe there is a demand for honest and ethical therapy that truly makes a difference in people's lives. After years of working in healthcare, we realized that the industry had lost it's focus on the patient. So we decided to start our own clinic and focus on providing our patients high quality care, each and every day. We wouldn't have it any other way.

Thanks for swinging by the site, and we hope to see you soon.

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Most common questions about physical therapy

1. What is physical therapy (PT)? – Physical therapists, sometimes called PTs, are experts in the musculoskeletal system, meaning we know your muscles, bones, joints, tendons, ligaments and how they operate as well as anyone. We play a critical role in the recovery and rehabilitation of the injured, hurting, or those suffering chronic conditions. Becoming a Doctor of Physical Therapy (the only type of PTs we hire at Rise), requires over seven years of education.

2. Is PT covered by insurance? Almost all insurance plans give you an annual allowance of PT visits. For our current patients, that has typically meant a copay of around $15-$30/visit. Sometimes it’s lower, or even completely covered by insurance. Depending on your plan you might pay a bit more, such as when your plan has a higher deductible. If you are unsure, give us a call and our insurance experts can help you figure it out. You can reach us at (479) 442-7473.

3. Do you need a doctor’s referral for PT?No referral is needed – you can come straight in to see us without having to go to your doctor. Years ago a referral was required, but studies like this showed it was dramatically more effective and cheaper for patients to be sent to PTs first. The state of Arkansas has not required them for over 20 years (since 1997).

4. Does physical therapy work? – The only question that matters. Here’s what a recent large study found: “In the year following their initial complaint to primary providers, the sample of people in the study who went to physical therapy directly spent an average of $1,871, compared to $6,664 for those who were first sent for an MRI. The patients who received physical therapy first were less likely to receive surgery and injections, and they made fewer specialists and emergency department visits within a year of primary consultation.” [link] So not only does it work, it saves you money over the long run.

5. How much does PT cost? – We actually went ahead and ran the numbers on this one. If you include all of our past patients, the average payment after insurance was $19.25. So anywhere from $15 – $30 is a fairly accurate estimate of how much you’d be looking at paying per visit. That said, some patients actually get PT completely covered by insurance so you may end up paying $0.

6. What is the difference between a PT and a chiropractor? – There are quite a few, but the biggest difference is in the way the professions approach the practice of medicine. Physical therapists strictly use evidence-based (scientific) treatments that are focused on healing the patient permanently rather than temporarily dulling pain. At Rise, we are all about educating you on how to treat and address your issues on your own with stretches and exercises. On the other hand, Chiropractors tend to focus on pain relief techniques like spinal manipulation (adjustment) that are performed on an ongoing basis. It just comes down to what you desire in a treatment.

More questions? Read through the rest of our frequently asked questions here or give us a call at (479) 442-7473.