People with back or neck pain are often fearful as to whether they have a herniated disc. If they've had an MRI, it's likely a herniated disc will show up, which doesn't mean someone is broken or will be in pain forever.
Studies have shown that imaging and "impaired structures" don't always correlate to pain and dysfunction*. With normal aging, there will be structural differences and changes within the body that may not produce the perfect image but it doesn't mean one is in pain either. The body is resilient and can handle more than people often think. If there is pain, a physical therapist can help mitigate that without imaging and with more conservative treatments to help a person improve.
*Imaging is appropriate in certain circumstances. With a proper screening, which a Physical Therapist can do, your healthcare provider will be able to determine if you'd benefit from imaging or not.
What Is A Herniated Disc?
The spine has viscous discs between each vertebrae to act as a cushion and to dissipate force with movement. With normal, healthy aging, the space between the vertebrae may shrink, putting more pressure onto the discs, which may lead to "wear and tear" of the disc.
*Photo credit orthoinfo.aaos.org
A herniation can occur, which may be asymptomatic and go unnoticed, throughout a person's life. It may be symptomatic and/or induced by a traumatic event or injury. A herniated disc may compress a nerve that creates symptoms such as weakness, burning, numbness or tingling.
If you experience severe pain/numbness/tingling/weakness or loss of bladder and bowel function, that is a time to seek medical attention immediately. Otherwise, most cases benefit from seeing a Physical Therapist first because it can save you a lot of time and money by avoiding expensive imagining, injections, and long wait times in a medical office.
Through specific movements and tests, Physical Therapists can determine what tissue or structure is contributing to your pain and then come up with a specific plan to help mitigate those symptoms. Most herniated discs heal on their own and pain goes away as the body gets stronger, and becomes mindful of optimal lifting patterns and other movements. In severe cases, or where symptoms don't change with conservative treatments, is when someone may consider surgery. Then they'd resume Physical Therapy following surgery to learn how to move properly depending on the procedure performed, rebuild strength, and function.
There's no reason to feel like you're going to be in pain forever and just have to live with it... Movement is medicine.
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