Top 3 Signs of Herniated Disc and What You Can Do About It
Chances are that if you have back pain your doctor, or maybe even a friend, has told you that you may have a herniated disc. An MRI can confirm this, but this expensive imaging technique may not be necessary as herniated discs can be diagnosed quite easily with a comprehensive history taking and physical exam. I am not talking about a short 5-10 minute visit with a doctor or neurosurgeon in which you are given a label of “herniated disc”, “stenosis”, or “disc disease”. Typically an hour-long examination is necessary to either rule-in or rule-out other potential causes of your back pain. 5-10 minutes just won’t cut it, and often can leave you wondering what’s next. Below I will talk about the top 3 signs that you may have a herniated disc.
1. Your pain is usually worse when you are sitting.
When we sit for long periods of time more pressure is placed on our discs than when you stand. If a disc has already been herniated or has been predisposed to a herniation this pressure can often cause an increase in pain in our low back. Often times, as sitting time increases the pain gets more intense and can often refer into the buttock/hip area. Many times this type of pain affects us at work and during social outings such as going to the movie theater. If you suffer with this type of pain you will want to avoid “slouching” when sitting and instead sit with a backward bend, or slight arch, in your low back. If you find this difficult to do you may want to consider placing a rolled up towel or foam roller (about 6—8 inches in diameter) and place it behind your back while you sit in order to keep you upright.
2. Bending forward often causes an increase in pain
Bending forward or flexing your spine will be one of the more provocative positions for you if you have a herniated disc. Back to the same concept of placing “pressure on the disc”. Each time you bend forward you increase the pressure on the back end of your disc (think of a balloon that you squeeze on one end and the opposite end bulges getting bigger). Now bending forward isn’t necessarily bad in general, but if you have a herniated disc then bending forward too much can delay your recovery. People with this type of pain usually have a hard time picking up small children/grandchildren and find it difficult to reach down for low objects. To avoid putting pressure when bending forward, perform the “hip hinge” technique. You can do this by keeping your spine straight and only bending at your hips when you reach down. This can also be performed when you go to stand up from a chair as well.
3. You often get numbness, tingling, or pain down your leg.
Herniated discs are the number #1 cause of sciatica. Chances are if you have sciatica it is likely related to your disc problem. If your pain is severe enough, your sciatic pain most likely can be set off by the above-mentioned postures/movements as well. Sciatic pain/numbness/tingling can be caused by irritation by the herniated disc. This sciatic pain is often described as a “burning” that can make exercise and social outings very uncomfortable. The key to keeping your sciatic pain under control is to know what movement/postures turn the pain on. From there you can do the “opposite” of those irritating movements to help reduce the pain. For instance, many people find relief if they get up and walk while stretching tall. Lying on your tummy can also help reduce your sciatic pain (although this may increase your low back pain slightly, that is okay).
These are the hallmark signs of a herniated disc. Can a herniated disc be healed? Yes, it can! Often times it can be done without expensive surgery (medications and injections just mask the pain and do not fix the true source). Physical therapy is a natural and low cost proven line of defense against herniated discs. You will be given exercises and taught how to move throughout the day to prevent those painful ”flare-ups”. The key to recovery is getting help FAST before the situation gets worse. If a herniated disc is left untreated it likely will progress to more intense sciatic pain. Do not delay treatment thinking your symptoms will get better. Find a good Physical Therapist that can get to the root of your pain and help you get back to the activities that you love.