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Can you massage a herniated disc?

A herniated disc, also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, occurs when the jelly-like center of a spinal disc pushes through a tear in the tough outer layer. This can cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the back and legs. While herniated discs often heal on their own, massage may help relieve discomfort during recovery. However, it’s important to consult a doctor first and take precautions when massaging a herniated disc.

What is a herniated disc?

The spine is made up of small bones called vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other. In between these bones are soft, rubbery pads called intervertebral discs. These discs act as shock absorbers and allow flexibility in the spine.

Each disc has a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus. This surrounds the soft, gel-like nucleus pulposus. When the annulus becomes weak or torn, the inner nucleus can bulge out. This is called a herniated disc.

Herniated discs are most common in the lumbar spine (lower back) and the cervical spine (neck). They occur due to injury or general wear and tear as we age. Factors like poor posture, obesity, smoking, and repetitive lifting can increase the risk.

When a disc herniates, it can put pressure on nearby nerves. This often causes:

– Pain in the back or neck that may radiate into the arms or legs
– Numbness or tingling sensations
– Muscle weakness

Symptoms are usually felt on one side of the body, depending on where the affected nerve is located.

Can massage help a herniated disc?

Gentle massage may provide some relief from a herniated disc. However, it should only be done under the supervision of a doctor or physical therapist.

Potential benefits of massage include:

Pain relief – Massage can help relax tight muscles that may be spasming or in spasm from compensating for the herniated disc. This can reduce associated cramping and pain.

Increased circulation – Improved blood flow brings fresh oxygen and nutrients to promote healing. It also flushes out inflammatory waste products.

Reduced muscle tension – Kneading and rubbing knots in the muscles can relieve muscle tension caused by guarding and compensating for the injured disc.

Improved mobility – Gentle massage combined with other therapies may help improve range of motion as the herniated disc heals.

Decreased swelling – Massage strokes can help drain excess fluid buildup around the affected area and reduce nerve irritation.

Enhanced well-being – The relaxation response elicited by massage eases anxiety, depression, and perception of pain.

So while massage may not cure a herniated disc, it can make living with one more comfortable. But special care and consideration are needed when massaging a sensitive back injury.

Precautions when massaging a herniated disc

It’s crucial to consult a doctor before massaging a herniated disc. Only massage under the guidance of a professional. Improper massage can make the injury worse. Key precautions include:

– Avoid massaging directly over the herniated disc itself. Focus on surrounding muscles.

– Use light to moderate pressure. Deep tissue massage could aggravate the disc.

– Do not twist the spine during massage. Move limbs and massage muscle only.

– Avoid massage techniques like shaking and vibrating which jar the spine.

– Keep neck and back supported in a neutral position. No arching or overstretching.

– Massage in short sessions of 15-20 minutes to start. Take breaks as needed.

– Stop any massage activity that causes pain, numbness, or tingling.

– Avoid massage if there are signs of nerve damage like muscle wasting.

– Skip massage if the disc herniation is due to recent injury or trauma.

– Do not massage over areas of broken skin, burns, rashes, or infections.

With proper medical guidance, massage can be incorporated into an overall treatment plan. But it should not replace standard medical care for a herniated disc.

Is massage safe for a herniated disc?

Massage is generally safe for a herniated disc as long as proper precautions are taken. Key points to keep in mind:

– Get doctor’s approval before starting massage therapy. Make sure no red flags exist.

– Work with an experienced massage therapist who is familiar with disc injuries. Avoid spas or franchises.

– Use a customized approach focused on the individual’s symptoms and needs.

– Start very gently and progress slowly. Ease into any newly massaged areas.

– Avoid massage over the disc bulge itself. Focus on surrounding tissues only.

– Do not massage an acute disc herniation with severe nerve symptoms. Wait for the acute phase to pass.

– Skip massage if you have signs of spinal instability or cord compression. These require expert care.

– Adjust pressure and techniques based on feedback during the massage. Stop if any discomfort arises.

– Avoid movements or positions that increase pain or radiating symptoms.

– Drink plenty of water after massage to help flush inflammatory waste products.

– Avoid other physical activities like exercise or sports on days you get massage.

With a cautious, evidence-based approach, massage can be a safe addition for many with a herniated disc. But any sudden worsening of symptoms warrants reevaluation by a medical provider.

Massage techniques for a herniated disc

The massage approach for a herniated disc focuses on relaxing the surrounding muscles rather than the disc itself. Gentle Swedish massage techniques that may help include:

Effleurage – Soothing gliding strokes relax muscles and increase blood flow.

Petrissage – Light kneading can loosen tight, shortened muscles.

Compression – Gentle pressure along muscle fibers may ease spasms.

Passive stretches – Stretching tight areas like the hamstrings may reduce strain.

Myofascial release – This helps release adhesion between muscles and surrounding connective tissue.

Trigger point therapy – Ischemic compression on trigger points reduces local pain.

Lymphatic drainage – Gentle pumping clears inflammatory fluids around irritated nerves.

The therapist will avoid:

– Deep pressure over the herniated disc itself

– Forceful joint mobilization or manipulation

– Spinal twists or stretches

– Bouncing or shaking motions

– Any movements that increase radiating leg or arm pain

Let the therapist know immediately if any massage techniques aggravate your symptoms. Everything should feel soothing.

Massage for herniated disc recovery

Massage therapy for a herniated disc should change over the course of recovery. Acute symptoms may need minimal touch at first. As the condition improves, more focused massage around the injury site becomes appropriate.

Early on:

– Light relaxation massage to distal areas only

– Avoid localized massage over back/neck

– Sessions under 30 minutes

– 1-2x per week at most

As pain and inflammation subside:

– Begin gentle massage around injury site

– Release tense shoulder and hip muscles

– Use heat packs/hot stones to loosen tissues

– Sessions 30-60 minutes

– 1-3x per week

Chronic stage:

– Deeper massage to tight muscles around herniated disc

– Full back/neck/shoulder massage

– Passive stretching and range of motion exercises

– Reduce frequency to 1-2x monthly for maintenance

The stage of healing will determine the massage approach. Work closely with your provider to adjust techniques as recovery progresses. Don’t rush the body’s natural timeline.

Will massage fix a herniated disc?

While massage has many benefits, it will not completely fix or cure a herniated disc on its own. Herniated discs develop over years of wear and tear. They often require a combination of conservative treatments focused on pain relief and healing.

Key points:

– Massage cannot repair a torn annulus or put the protruding nucleus back in place. This requires time and rest.

– Massage helps treat secondary muscle tension and spasms. But it does not treat the underlying disc pathology.

– Regular massage may help prevent future disc problems through stress reduction and postural improvements.

– For chronic disc herniations, massage can manage long-term discomfort. But additional medical care is typically still needed.

– Surgery may be required in cases of severe, unresolved nerve compression. Massage cannot fix mechanical compression issues.

While results will vary, the majority of herniated discs do heal gradually with rest and conservative care. Massage serves as a helpful adjunct treatment. But it should not be considered a cure-all for this complex spinal condition.

When to avoid massage for a herniated disc

In some cases, massage may not be appropriate and could potentially be harmful. Avoid massage therapy if you have:

– An acute disc herniation with sudden, severe symptoms

– Loss of bowel or bladder function indicating spinal cord compression

– Progressive neurological deficits in the arms or legs

– Signs of cauda equina syndrome such as saddle anesthesia

– A history of spinal instability or spondylolisthesis

– Increased pain lasting more than 24 hours after massage

– Local infection, fracture, tumor, or osteoporosis around the spine

– Bleeding disorders or use blood thinners that can increase bruising risk

– Allergies to massage oils, lotions, or creams applied to skin

Talk to your doctor before considering massage if unsure about your specific condition. Some “red flag” symptoms warrant immediate medical assessment. When in doubt, avoid massage and seek prompt medical advice.

How to find a massage therapist experienced with herniated discs

Look for a well-qualified massage therapist with specialized disc herniation training when considering massage. Recommended steps:

– Ask your doctor for a referral to physical therapy or chiropractic offices that provide massage therapy.

– Look for therapists with “orthopedic massage” or “neuromuscular therapy” certifications.

– Search for practitioners specifically mentioning herniated disc massage experience.

– Ask about their massage training, years in practice, and condition expertise.

– Look for licensed massage therapists (LMTs), not paramedical masseuses.

– Verify proper liability insurance coverage for your protection.

– Read online reviews mentioning back/neck disc injuries.

– Ask providers detailed questions about their massage approach. Avoid anyone suggesting intense spinal manipulation.

– Request a consultation visit to discuss your injury before booking treatment.

Take your time finding an experienced clinician. Skilled hands-on care from a trusted professional can make all the difference in your disc injury recovery.

How often should you get massage for a herniated disc?

There is no set massage schedule that works for everyone with a herniated disc. Treatment frequency depends on:

– Severity of the disc herniation

– Presence of any neurological deficits

– Stage and speed of healing

– Intensity of symptoms

– Nature of work/activities

– Additional therapies being used

That said, the following massage frequency is generally recommended:

– Acute phase: 1-2 times per week max

– Healing phase: 1-3 times per week

– Chronic stage: 1-2 times per month

In the early stages, mild massage helps reduce acute inflammation without overdoing it. As healing occurs, more frequent massage releases muscular restrictions. For chronic discs, monthly maintenance helps manage residual tightness.

The key is adjusting massage frequency based on feedback. Increase if it provides sustained relief without flare-ups. Decrease if symptoms worsen after treatment. Too much massage too soon can slow the natural healing process.

Massage therapy expectations with a herniated disc

It’s important to have realistic expectations about massage for disc herniations. Massage can help ease pain and improve function. But it has limits and will not miraculously cure a severely herniated disc.

Some key expectations to keep in mind:

– Massage will not repair a torn annulus or fix the disc bulge. This requires time.

– Discomfort often flares up at first during massage before muscles relax. Breathe through it.

– Herniated discs sometimes get worse before improving. Be patient through ups and downs.

– Results accrue over weeks to months of care. Don’t expect drastic changes after one massage.

– Massage helps with muscle tightness indirectly related to the disc only.

– Surgery may still be required for severe or progressive nerve compression.

– Temporary soreness for 24-48 hours after massage is common as tissues release.

– Drink extra water, rest more, and avoid strenuous activities between massages.

– Use massage as part of a comprehensive program of care including rehab exercises.

Going into massage therapy with a positive but realistic mindset will enable you to stick with it over the full course of disc healing.

Other complementary treatments for a herniated disc

While massage therapy helps relieve pain and muscle tension, other non-invasive treatments are also beneficial for herniated discs. Additional options your provider may recommend include:

Chiropractic – Spinal manipulation aids mobility and reduces nerve irritation.

Physical therapy – Exercises strengthen core muscles for spine stabilization.

Yoga – Gentle stretching and mind-body awareness aids healing.

Acupuncture – Needling and electrostimulation decreases inflammation.

Ice/heat therapy – Alternating temperatures relieves localized pain.

TENS – Mild electrical stimulation prevents nerve impulses of pain.

Spinal decompression – Traction devices take pressure off compressed nerves.

Medications – Oral steroids and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs reduce inflammation.

Dietary changes – Weight loss helps unload the spinal discs.

A multifaceted, non-invasive treatment approach offers the best results with herniated disc injuries. Massage serves as one key component among many during the healing process.

Home massage tips for herniated discs

While professional massage is recommended, you can massage some areas yourself at home between sessions:

– Rub gentle circles into the neck and shoulders to relieve tension. Avoid direct pressure on the spine.

– Knead sore muscles lightly in a smooth, flowing way rather than digging in.

– Work areas far from the disc injury like hands, feet, arms and legs. This promotes overall relaxation.

– Try tennis balls or foam rollers against the feet or shoulder blades. Don’t use over the low back.

– Consider massage devices like cushions or canes that allow you to control the pressure.

– Experiment with topical analgesics like cooling gels after massage to dull ache.

– Focus on relaxing breathing and mindful body awareness during self-massage.

– Stop immediately if self-massage causes any arm or leg numbness or tingling.

While benefits are limited, self-massage is a safe way to supplement professional treatment for minor tension and stress relief.

When to seek medical care

Most herniated discs improve gradually with conservative self-care. But see a doctor right away if you experience:

– Loss of bowel or bladder control

– Persistent weakness in the arms or legs

– Numbness in the saddle region or inner thighs

– Unsteadiness walking or problems balancing

– Severe or progressive neurological symptoms

Prompt medical evaluation is needed to assess nerve damage and determine if emergent treatment is required. Though rare, untreated disc herniations can sometimes lead to permanent nerve injury over time. Don’t wait with red flag symptoms.

The bottom line

Gentle massage therapy can provide relief from muscle tightness and spasm during recovery from a herniated disc. When performed cautiously by an experienced practitioner, massage may aid the body’s natural healing process. But massage should never replace standard medical care. Herniated discs often benefit from a holistic program with massage as just one component. By managing expectations and taking a gradual approach, massage can be a safe, therapeutic addition for many with this common back injury.


– Herniated discs develop when an intervertebral disc’s nucleus pulposus ruptures through weakened annulus fibrosus. This can irritate spinal nerves.

– Massage may help by relieving muscle tension, enhancing mobility, reducing inflammation, and promoting relaxation.

– Work only with an experienced massage therapist and get doctor approval before starting.

– Use gentle Swedish techniques. Avoid deep pressure over the disc itself.

– Customize the massage approach based on symptoms and stage of healing.

– While beneficial for pain, massage cannot repair a herniated disc or cure nerve compression.

– Realistic expectations are important when using massage for disc injuries.

– Prompt medical care is required if any severe neurological symptoms develop.