Physical Therapist Exercises for a Herniated Disc in the Neck

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A cervical herniated disc results when the cushioning gel material between two of the vertebrae in your neck is pushed out of its normal position, according to the experts at New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases. When this happens, you will likely need physical therapy exercises to help manage and improve your symptoms.


You can herniate a disc anywhere in your spine, but when the injury occurs in your neck, it is known as a cervical disc herniation. Your spine is divided into three distinct portions: your neck area is known as your cervical spine; your mid-back is known as your thoracic spine; and your lower back is the lumbar spine. If you herniate a disc in any area in your spine, you will likely suffer pain as the protruding disc presses on the nerve roots in your spinal column.


In addition to medication, your doctor may suggest physical therapy to treat your herniated disc symptoms. Physical therapy or PT may consist of exercise and modalities such as heat, cold and stretching that will help control and hopefully relieve your symptoms. The good news: 90 percent of individuals respond favorably to physical therapy exercises and modalities within three months of injury. Your doctor and therapist will determine the frequency of your treatment, but you may need to attend PT two to three times per week in the beginning. On your fist visit, your therapist will perform an evaluation. She will work in conjunction with your doctor to create a plan of exercise that is best for you.


There are several types of exercise that may be ordered to treat your herniated disc, including isometrics, strengthening, posture, lifting, walking and stretching. Your PT may also include exercises to strengthen your shoulders and arms and increase the flexibility of your spine. Your exercise program will be customized for you based on your age, physical ability and type of injury. Expect your physical therapist to show you exactly how to perform the exercises. She most likely will provide written instructions to follow when you are practicing your exercises at home.


In addition to exercise, you may be treated with certain physical therapy modalities. You may undergo heat and cold packs to reduce swelling and inflammation. Cervical traction may be used by your therapist to temporarily stretch and lengthen your neck. This acts to reduce the pressure the protruding disc creates on your nerves. Another modality is called electric stimulation, or electric stim. Your therapist will attach electrodes to your skin with adhesive. The electrodes conduct and deliver a gentle electric current to your skin. Electric stim confuses and then relaxes your nerves, which helps reduce muscle spasms in your neck.


The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons warns that any physical activity you do following a herniated disc, including physical therapy, should be slow and controlled. This is especially important when bending and lifting objects.

Because of multiple variables, a physical therapy plan needs to be created especially for you following a disc herniation. Exercise is not a one-size-fits-all treatment. To avoid re-injury, or exacerbation of your current injury, do not participate in any exercises without the consent and guidance of your health care provider and your physical therapist.