OC Sports & Rehab


A herniated disc can occur at any point along your spine. Herniated discs are a common cause of back, arm, and/or leg pain in our physical therapy practice.

If you suspect that a herniated disc is causing your pain and dysfunction, please contact us right away to schedule a physical therapy appointment. Our skilled team can help you identify the source of your symptoms and heal the injured disc for long-term relief.

When you should see a physical therapist for herniated disc pain

Physical therapy has been shown in studies to be effective in the treatment of herniated discs. If your symptoms interfere with your daily life or work activities, or if they last longer than two weeks, we recommend that you seek physical therapy services.

Spinal traction, remedial exercises, and non-invasive modalities such as electrical stimulation or diathermy can help heal the injured disc, relieve pain, and help you avoid recurring issues.

If you have been told by a surgeon that you may need spinal surgery to correct the protrusion, physical therapy may be recommended. Many surgeons will advise their patients to work with a physical therapist prior to undergoing a spinal fusion or disc decompression procedure to improve core strength and spinal health. This can improve surgical outcomes while lowering the risk of postoperative complications.

Surprisingly, research shows that even “idiopathic” back pain (pain with no known cause) responds favorably to physical therapy. In other words, even if it’s unclear whether you have a herniated disc, our services can still be beneficial.

How to tell if your back pain is caused by a herniated disc

Spinal discs are small soft structures that exist between the vertebrae. Their primary functions are to absorb shock and maximize spine mobility. These discs are tough and fibrous on the outside, but soft and gel-like on the inside.

A herniated disc occurs when the disc’s tough outer layer (known as the annulus fibrosis) ruptures. This allows the inner gel substance (referred to as the nucleus pulposus) to escape. A ruptured disc can cause an inflammatory response and compress nearby structures such as joint receptors and spinal nerve roots.

Surprisingly, not all herniated discs cause discomfort (especially because the discs themselves are relatively low in innervation and vascularization). When a herniated disc does cause symptoms, they frequently include:

  • Pain that improves or “centralizes” (moves toward the spine) when lying down or lying prone
  • Pain that worsens with forward flexion or prolonged sitting—forward flexion can also cause pain to “peripheralize,” or move away from the spine.
  • Pain in the arm or leg, numbness, tingling, and weakness (if the herniated disc compresses on an adjacent nerve root that innervates the affected limb)
  • Neck or back pain, stiffness, and muscle spasms at the injured disc level

A herniated disc is similar to a bulging disc in that the disc tissue may protrude from its normal position but will not rupture.