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What is a herniated disc?

A herniated disc is a condition in the spine that results from the nucleus pulposus, a gelatin-like substance surrounded by a rubbery substance called the annulus fibrosis, being displaced from the intervertebral space.1 This can happen due to sudden trauma or long-term pressure on the spine (for example poor posture and lifting mechanics).1 A herniated disc is a common cause of back pain and sometimes can radiate to other areas of your body like your legs. It can press on a nerve and cause numbness, tingling, and/or weakness in the neck, back, arm, or legs. A herniated disc may even cause myelopathy, where the herniated disc compresses either the spinal cord or nerve and leads to neurological deficits.2 If the bulging/herniated disc presses on nerves nearby then it can cause pain or muscle weakness. If the bulging/herniated disc doesn’t press on nerves nearby then pain or impairments may not occur.

Common Signs and Symptoms of Disc Herniation

  • Pain, numbness, or tingling in the neck, back, low back, arms, or legs1,3

  • Inability to bend, twist, rotate or extend the back due to pain or discomfort1,3

  • Leaning forward, back, or to the side in order to relieve pain or discomfort1,3

  • Needing to change position because of discomfort or pain when sitting, standing, or laying for prolonged periods of time1,3

How Can Physical Therapy Help?

The majority of herniated discs do not require surgery, and research has shown that it responds well to physical therapy.1 A physical therapist will design an individualized treatment program to help people with pain from herniated discs achieve normal movement, reduce pain, and get back to their regular activities.1 The goal of physical therapy is to improve posture, motion, flexibility, strength, and reduce your pain and other symptoms in order to return to your activities pain-free and strong.


  1. Physical Therapy Guide to Herniated Disk. American Physical Therapy Association. Published December 27, 2019. Accessed July 15, 2021.

  2. Oyinkan Marquis B, Capone PM. Myelopathy. Handb Clin Neurol. 2016;136:1015-26. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53486-6.00052-1. PMID: 27430455.

  3. Weber H. The natural history of disc herniation and the influence of intervention. Spine (Phila Pa 1976). 1994 Oct 1;19(19):2234-8; discussion 2233. doi: 10.1097/00007632-199410000-00022. PMID: 7809761.

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