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How Massage Helps Herniated Disc Pain

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT October 16, 2019 0 Comments

Woman's back massaging her back on the floor with spiked massage ball

Massage has a substantial reputation for being therapeutic.  Ultimately, this is because of the significant relaxation it promotes.  On both a psychological and physical level, a good massage session can leave you feeling blissful and provide significant pain relief.  Whether it is self-administered or done by a therapist, there are many benefits to massage therapy for a herniated disc.

Who Can Provide Massage Therapy?

Massage therapist are well trained and known for their “smart hands” in addressing problem areas. However, a massage therapist isn’t the only person that can give a good massage. Physical therapists are also trained in deep massage and manipulation techniques. Another plausible option is to follow your own intuition with self-massage or directing a loved one. There is no right way as long as your massage session leaves you feeling relaxed!

Benefits of a Massage

There are several different types of massage. Regardless of the type, the benefits are always similar.

  • Promotes circulation

    Any time there is an injury or sore area, increased blood flow can promote optimized healing. This is beneficial for the sore muscles around the herniated disc.

  • Provide a sense of well-being

    The power of human touch is amazing, plus rhythmic motions from massage releases the body’s own endorphins. These hormones promote feelings of satisfaction and well-being, making it easier to cope with pain and the healing process.

  • Decreased stress hormones

    Stress, anxiety, and depression from sustaining an injury can inhibit proper healing. Without proper management of stress, it can lead to a chronic long-term issue in association with the disc herniation.

  • Relaxation

    Muscles tend to be guarded and tight with a herniated disc injury. These stiff muscles can aggravate the entire issue and make it hard to get back to daily activities. Relaxation ultimately helps treat the soreness that may occur with a herniated disc.

  • Improve flexibility

    A herniated disc can lead to joint and muscle stiffness throughout the body. Improving movement in the spine and other affected body parts, such as the shoulders or hips, can help restore function and movement.

    When to Get a Massage for a Herniated Disc

    There are many reasons that you might decide massage for a herniated disc is right for you.

    • General muscle and joint stiffness or soreness
    • Feelings of anxiety, stress, and even depression
    • Trouble completing daily activities due to stiffness and pain
    • Good past experiences with massage
    • Poor pain cycle: stiffness is causing movement avoidance, which in turn is causing more stiffness and pain
    • Your herniated disc is affecting your sleep quality
    • You think one might help!

      What is the Best Type of Massage for a Herniated Disc?

      Deep Tissue Massage

      Deep tissue massage is a great option for addressing those stubborn, stiff, and sore spots. When done correctly, deep massage promotes the most endorphin release in comparison to other techniques. It is typically used to target specific problem areas in the muscles or fascia (tough, thick, layers of connective tissue that separate layers and surround muscle).

      Remember, deep tissue massage can lead to some soreness itself. This pain and soreness should be different from your original symptoms. Symptoms should not be aggravated. Rather, muscle groups and joints that were focused on during the massage may be sore. If sore, this where use of other modalities may be helpful as an adjunct in the recovery process.

      Combine massage with pain cream, heat, and cold therapy for added relief.

      Trigger Point Therapy

      Trigger point therapy is a technique that specifically addresses muscle knots in the body. These knots are small sections of muscle that have literally “bunched up” due to issues with overuse, poor posture, chronic pain, and other imbalances. Our muscles are meant to tolerate tension and stretch as long as they are allowed to periodically return to their original position, like a rubber band. When there is little rest time or too much strain small sections of the affected muscle will turn into a big mess of fibers. This limits blood flow to the area, perpetuating the problem even further.

      To address these areas, pressure is put directly on the muscle knot for an extended amount of time (typically 1-5 minutes). This is basically a “reset” for the muscle fibers. As pressure is applied, the surrounding area will be flooded with blood and promote better muscle fiber position as they relax. This technique is easy to self-administer with the right tools as long as you can stay relaxed throughout the process.

      Foam Rolling Exercises

      A foam roller is occasionally used by a massage therapist, but usually this is a good option for individualized home or gym massage time. You can purchase your own roller for a reasonable price or find them at your local gym, usually in the mat section. Foam rollers work best for slow rhythmic motion along big muscle groups, primarily muscles in the legs and mid to lower back. It’s also a great tool for stretching the chest to address postural issues.

        Hot and Cold Massage

        Heat and cold therapy are both great options for promoting relaxation and pain relief. Combine it with massage and you have a powerful tool for feeling better. A massage therapist may try hot stones, keep the room at a particular temperature, or being/end your session with heat or cold. Heat is typically better tolerated but cold is a great option for a new back injury that has a lot of inflammation. You can also use your own home tools for cost efficiency while still getting all the benefits.


        Acupressure is a traditional treatment option that uses tools, fingers, elbows, and knees to apply pressure to specific areas in the body. When it is being used for a herniated disc, the acupressurist will focus on relieving pain, stress, and promoting an overall sense of well-being through appropriate “energy” release and re-direction.  Acupressure mats for home are less focused on specific areas but are great for promoting circulation and pain relief via pressure points throughout the back. Any treatment that encourages increased circulation is definitely worth a try.

        Practicing Herniated Disc Massage Safely

        When participating in massage, comfort is key. While some discomfort or pain may occur, the key is to be able to stay relaxed.

        • If pressure is too much, it can lead to excess muscle guarding and actually make the issue worse. Your ability to relax should be your gauge to what you can do. “No pain no gain” does not apply for massage for a herniated disc.
        • Listen to your body and realize that harder is not better.
        • Be aware of your spine position. Too much time spent in a flexed posture can aggravate your symptoms. Plus, any prolonged position can lead to stiffness so make sure to move as needed and use pillow for propping.
        • If the massage technique or position you are in is increasing nerve symptoms, such as tingling, shooting pain, or muscle strength, re-adjust or discontinue.
        • Be aware of your anxiety. If you can’t relax this may not be a good option for you. Try other modalities and treatment options for pain relief such as chiropractic care or physical therapy.


            There is a reason that massage has stood the test of time for treating a variety of ailments. Muscles throughout the body get particularly stiff when there is pain associated with a bulging disc. When healing from a painful disc herniation, massage is a great adjunct to other treatments to get you back on track to a life you can participate in fully.





            Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
            Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

            JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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