How Can a Massage for a Herniated Disc Offer Relief?

A herniated disc occurs when one of the soft cushions (discs) between the vertebrae in the backbone become damaged. The tough, outer layer can become weakened, allowing some of the gel-like inside (called the "nucleus") to seep out. In many cases a herniated disc doesn't cause any symptoms, but sometimes it can cause pain and other discomforts because the disc can press on a nerve and the nucleus can irritate nerves, such as in the spinal cord.

One effective and non-invasive treatment the discomfort is through massage therapy.

In this article, we will explore the benefits of massages, which ones are most effective for treating herniated discs, and how they can contribute to overall spinal health.

What are the benefits of a massage for a herniated disc?

Massaging for a herniated disc can provide immediate pain relief and other benefits that can helps the body to heal:

  • Releasing tension: Massage techniques address muscle tension, allowing the body to relax and reducing pain and stiffness in the painful area and other areas of the body.
  • Relaxation: Overall relaxation and feeling good isn't just a short-term benefit. Managing and reducing stress can give your body time and space to heal, and reduce your overall pain experience.
  • Easing symptoms: Rhythmic pressure and gentle movements can ease symptoms of numbness or weakness, and trigger endorphins – feel-good chemicals in the body.

Pain relief

Massage therapy gives natural pain relief for herniated discs. Although massage won't directly heal the disc or the nerve, therapists use their hands to target areas of muscle tension and nerve compression. By improving blood flow to the area, massage helps nutrients and oxygen reach the affected disc and this can speed up healing and reduce swelling1. In this way, massage can give relief without injections. The goal is to help you feel more comfortable and have the massage align with your body’s signals, not put too much stress and promote healing.

Muscle relaxation

Relaxing the muscles is often a big part of feeling better when you have a herniated disc. Massage therapy eases stiff and tense muscles, which reduces pain and increases mobility. Massaging the tissues around the discs reduces limitations and supports natural healing. This treats not only muscle spasms but also restores movement in muscles near the injured disc so you can get back to daily activities without discomfort.

Blood flow

Massage therapy improves blood flow so the body can respond better to injury. Each stroke during massage therapy increases circulation and delivers nutrients and oxygen to the swollen and painful tissues. Combining hot and cold therapy with massage can further reduce inflammation and promote healing. Cold therapy reduces inflammation and heat increases blood flow and speeds up recovery and circulation2.

What are the different massages for a herniated disc?

Several massage techniques are good for herniated disc pain and associated symptoms:

  • Myofascial release: This non-invasive manual therapy eases tension in the fascia, the connective tissue around the muscles. By applying sustained pressure on specific trigger points myofascial release reduces tension and discomfort and allows natural spinal alignment and healing.
  • Deep tissue massage: This technique goes into the deeper muscle layers where chronic pain resides. It requires a strong touch to break down adhesions that limit movement and can give immediate and long-term pain relief and flexibility.
  • Trigger point therapy: This method targets the muscular knots that sometimes come with herniated discs. By applying pressure on these knots, trigger point therapy relaxes the muscles and improves blood flow and eases chronic pain and lays the foundation for healing3.

What is the fastest way to heal a herniated disc?

Symptoms of a herniated disc usually reduce over time, without the need for any specific treatments. While the body heals on its own, there are things you can do to set the stage for a faster recovery, including:

  • having a regular sleep schedule and aiming to get enough sleep each night
  • eating a balanced diet, with plenty of fruits and vegetables and wholegrains
  • performing low-impact exercises, such as walking, cycling, swimming, gentle weight training, or whatever movement you enjoy
  • applying hot and cold therapy in the initial stages.

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What are common myths about a herniated disc?

Although you may have been diagnosed with a herniated disc it doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the cause of your back pain. In fact, in one study 90 patients that had no symptoms had MRIs, and 33 o those people had signs of a herniated disc – but no pain4!

So having back pain and a herniated disc doesn’t always mean the disc is causing the pain. Sometimes it’s just an incidental finding. Diagnosing the cause of the pain is more important than an MRI showing a herniated disc. Other conditions like referred pain or central sensitization might be causing your back pain.

Central sensitization

Central sensitization is a condition where the central nervous system becomes hypersensitive to stimuli that wouldn’t normally cause pain. This increased sensitivity causes a stronger response to normal stimuli, such as touch or temperature changes, or can even produce pain without there being any injury or external cause. Essentially the nervous system stays in a state of hyper-reactivity and the body becomes more pain-prone.

Research shows that back pain is influenced by the central nervous system, which affects how we process pain and involves our immune system5. So pain isn’t just due to physical issues like a herniated disc. It’s also affected by how the brain and spinal cord processes signals from the body. This can make the pain feel more intense and more widespread.

How to treat back pain holistically

Effectively treating your back pain is holistic. It includes, physical therapy to reduce your nervous system sensitivity and cognitive behavioral therapy to address any psychological factors contributing to your pain. It might also include medications to manage your symptoms.

Retraining your pain response

We need to understand how we can influence our brain’s interpretation of pain. Pain is not just a physical sensation; it’s a complex experience of emotions, thoughts, and environment.

First, find out what makes your pain worse. This could be stress, negative thinking, or specific activities. Once you know what they are, you can change them. This might mean eating better, sleeping better, being more active, or learning new ways to think and respond to those triggers. With time and practice you can retrain your brain to handle pain differently and the pain will be less intense and less of a problem in your life.

Exercise

Despite the common myth that you should stop exercising when you have back pain, exercise when done gradually is safe and good for your spine.

Regular physical activity helps maintain spinal health by increasing blood flow. This brings essential nutrients to the spinal discs and promotes healing. Low-impact exercises like walking, swimming, or cycling can strengthen the muscles that support your spine, reduce stiffness, and increase flexibility.

Sleep

Sleeping well can be tough when you have back pain but it’s essential for healing. Here are some tips to improve your sleep and overall health:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule. 8 hours of sleep and consistent bedtime and wake up time.
  • Limit naps so they don’t interfere with your nighttime sleep.
  • Be active during the day so you can sleep better at night.
  • Develop a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve screens. This will help your brain wind down before sleep.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary. Dark and quiet.
  • Monitor your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening. Caffeine can stay in your system and make it hard to sleep.
  • Don’t eat heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime. They can disrupt your sleep.
  • Do relaxing activities outside of sleep. This will help you manage your symptoms and sleep better.

Medication as an enabler

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can be used to relieve pain and inflammation. If your pain is severe, your doctor may prescribe other medications, such as muscle relaxants or even stronger pain medications, which can give more relief.

Although these medications can manage pain, they are only part of the overall treatment plan and are not a long-term solution. Long-term use of any medication can affect the body’s central nervous system. It can become tolerant to the drugs so you may need more of the medication to achieve the same pain-blocking effect.

Stress management

While stress is a part of life, learning to manage it can reduce its impact on your body. Effective stress management techniques can prevent everyday stressors from becoming physical pain.

There are several ways to manage stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one way to change how you think and respond to stress. Practicing mindfulness can help you stay present and calm. And seeking social support is important. Talking to friends, joining support groups, or seeing a counselor can give you emotional relief and encouragement.

More information

At MoreGoodDays® we have a program, based on scientific research, to help you with chronic back pain. Our approach debunks common myths about back pain, focuses on understanding the root causes, identifying triggers, and learning to change your body’s response to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

We offer personalized coaching and tools to help you manage pain, mental health, and overall wellbeing.

Download our mobile app for free from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store for immediate access to some of our content and to see your support options.