We’ve recently noted that chronic back pain can be caused by poor posture, weak back muscles, or not moving enough during the work day. And we focused on one medical condition that can cause back pain, sciatica. One of the possible causes of sciatica is a herniated disc. So what is a herniated disc, and what does it feel like?

What is a herniated disc?

As you can see in the drawings below, your spine is composed of multiple vertebrae, small bones stacked one on top of another, with the spinal cord going through the middle. In between these vertebrae are intervertebral discs. The experts at Physiquality member Northern Arizona Physical Therapy Associates explain that these discs are tough on the outside but soft on the inside, allowing for movement and shock absorption. A herniated disc happens when the tough exterior is torn and that soft inner core leaks out of the disc; if this puts pressure on the sciatic nerve, it can cause sciatica.

Diagram of the parts of the backbone, with two different angles to show one vertebra alone and another with three stacked on top of each other to show how they intersect.

What can cause a herniated disc?

The experts at Physiquality member DynamX Physical Therapy in California note that our spinal discs become less pliable with age, increasing our chances of a herniated disc in our 30s and 40s. Weightlifters should be cautious as improper form can cause such an injury, as can repetitive twisting or high-impact sports. Men are more likely than women to have herniated discs, and being overweight or obese can increase your risk as well. And, of course, it can be caused by a traumatic injury, like being in a car accident.

What does a herniated disc feel like?

Pain and symptoms may vary pending where the herniated disc is located in your spine, but DynamX Physical Therapy notes that these are the most common symptoms of a herniated disc:

  • Pain that intensifies when bending, twisting, sitting, coughing, or sneezing.
  • Weakness in one or both legs.
  • Numbness, tingling, or burning in the back, buttock, legs, and/or feet.

What should I do if I suspect I have a herniated disc?

A male physical therapist pushes down on a femal patient's shoulders as she pulls on a bar attached to elastic resistance bands.

The first thing you should do is talk to your physical therapist. They can do a full evaluation of what might be causing your pain, then create a physical therapy regimen for your specific needs. Physiquality member Desert Edge Physical Therapy notes that this may include a variety of stretches and exercise to strengthen your core and spine; it can also include ice or heat therapy. They also point out that you might take medication to help with the pain, but include a reminder that any painkillers should be used sparingly and will not be a good solution for the long term.

The good news is that most people with herniated discs do not require surgery, and they can reduce their pain and get back to regular activity through physical therapy. In addition, your PT can work with you to reduce your chances of future injuries.                                                                                                          

Want to work with a physical therapist to reduce your back pain? Use our locator below to find a Physiquality physical therapist near you.

Thank you to our contributors:

Desert Edge Physical Therapy is a Physiquality member in Peoria, Arizona. The clinic is owned and operated by Mike King, PT, DPT, OCS, who believes passionately that the human body was designed to move. 

DynamX Physical Therapy is a Physiquality member with four locations throughout the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Founded in 2013, DynamX is committed to giving patients the best physical therapy services Southern California has to offer.

Physiquality member Northern Arizona Physical Therapy Associates has locations in Bullhead City and Kingman, AZ. They work to help you heal from an injury, learn how to prevent future injuries, and provide pain relief through customized treatment plans.

Learn how physical therapy can help with a herniated disc. Desert Edge Physical Therapy, March 17, 2022.


Could your back pain be caused by a herniated disc? DynamX Physical Therapy, August 20, 2019.

You could relieve your herniated disc pains with physical therapy. Northern Arizona Physical Therapy Associates.

American Physical Therapy Association. Physical therapy guide to herniated disc. ChoosePT, December 1, 2016.

“Vertebra” by Jmarchn is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

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