5 Best Exercises for Herniated Disc Back Pain Relief

Can you still exercise with a herniated disc? Short answer: yes!

This guide provides insights into some of the exercises that can safely reduce your discomfort and improve your mobility – so you can get back to feeling your best.

What is a herniated disc?

The most common type of hernia occurs in the belly or groin, when a gap in the muscular wall of the abdomen allows a section of the intestine to push through. When a hernia occurs with a disc – a cushion-like pad that sits between the bones that make up the spine – part of the fibrous outer layer of the disc has become weak. This allows the gel-like inside of the disc to push outwards.

Imagine each disc in your spine as a jelly-filled doughnut. The dough is the outer layer of the disc, and the jelly is the center. Now imagine some of the jelly oozing out. This is what happens in a herniated disc.

Herniated discs are most common in the lower back (the lumbar spine), but can also occur in the mid and upper back (the thoracic spine) and the neck (the cervical spine)1.

Not all herniated discs produce symptoms but some may produce various symptoms including pain, numbness, and weakness. The typical symptom is sharp, central back pain which is aggravated by motion. But, that doesn't mean you should stop exercising due to a herniated disc.

In fact, the right exercise program can relieve pain from a herniated disc, and also prevent a herniated disc from reoccurring.

Why is exercise important for a herniated disc?

Staying active with gentle exercises that do not cause a lot of additional discomfort is better than bed rest. Research shows that recovery results from a herniated disc are enhanced by exercise2.

There are three primary goals of exercise:

  1. Provide immediate pain relief. Any exercise that increases your cardiovascular health, strengthens your body, and improves your flexibility can help to relieve your discomfort. And the best part is that any movement is good for you, so choose something that you enjoy.
  2. Building muscle strength to prevent recurrence and provide spinal support. This can be achieved through resistance-style exercises.
  3. Maintaining a healthy weight, because carrying additional weight can further stress your spinal discs.

We'll first describe specific exercises that can achieve goal one of providing immediate relief. Then we'll discuss more general gentle exercises that help with goals two and three.

Important: Before starting any new exercise program, speak to a medical professional to make sure it is suitable for your specific situation.

Specific exercises to relieve back pain from a herniated disc

1. Prone on elbows

This exercise can help realign your discs into a position that can relieve pressure.

Steps to perform the prone on elbow:

  1. Lie face down on your stomach.
  2. Position your hands on the floor next to your shoulders.
  3. Gently push up, lifting your back and shoulders while keeping your forearms on the ground.
  4. Hold this position for 30 seconds.
  5. Repeat this movement 5 to 10 times.

2. Back flexion stretch

Steps to perform the back flexion stretch:

  1. Lie on your back and draw both knees toward your chest.
  2. Simultaneously, lift your head forward until you feel a comfortable stretch across your mid and lower back.
  3. Hold this stretch for 15-30 seconds.
  4. Repeat the stretch 5 to 10 times.

3. Cat-Cow stretch

This stretch will open the spaces in your spine, helping to relieve pressure on the herniated disc while improving mobility.

Steps to perform the Cat-Cow stretch:

  1. Start on your hands and knees.
  2. As you inhale, allow your stomach to "drop" towards the floor and lift your gaze towards the ceiling.
  3. Hold for 15-20 seconds.
  4. Slowly exhale, rounding your spine upwards towards the ceiling while pressing your hands into the floor and gently curving your neck to look at your feet.
  5. Hold for 15-20 seconds.
  6. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

4. Standing extension

This exercise assists in moving the disc into a neutral position.

Steps to perform the standing extension:

  1. Stand up tall.
  2. Put your hands on your hips.
  3. Gently push hips forward to extend your lower back.
  4. Arch your back and lift your gaze towards the ceiling.
  5. Hold for 2-3 seconds.
  6. Repeat for a total of 10 repetitions.

5. Bridge

This exercise engages your core to provide support to the lumbar spine and relieves back pain.

Steps to perform the bridge:

  1. Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground.
  2. Lift your hips towards the ceiling.
  3. Hold this position for a 20-30 seconds.
  4. Slowly lower your hips back down.
  5. Repeat for 2-3 sets of 10 repetitions.

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General activity-based exercises for a herniated disc

Low-impact gentle exercises such as yoga, walking, swimming, or mild strength training, can further contribute to holistically supporting your spine and relief from a herniated disc.

Yoga

Yoga is a mind-body therapy that's often recommended to treat back pain from herniated discs, but also the stress that accompanies it. By practicing a variety of yoga poses, you can strengthen the muscles throughout the body, including those that support the back and spine.

Also, the stress relief you get from yoga can also contribute to direct pain relief. This is because part of chronic pain can be attributed to something called central sensitization. This is a state of the central nervous system (your spinal cord and brain) that amplifies pain perception and increases your sensitivity to stimuli. It's like when you turn up the volume on your music so loud that even quiet songs sound deafening.

Central sensitization is directly linked to stress, so by reducing the stress in a meditative way, yoga can more broadly make a significant difference to your recovery journey.

Swimming

Swimming, a low-impact activity, can greatly benefit individuals with herniated discs by:

  • lessening spinal pressure
  • engaging the whole body in an extensive workout
  • using the supportive nature of water to reduce injury risks and enhance movement.

Gently swimming freestyle or backstroke is recommended because these are less strenuous on the spine. Incorporating a kickboard can provide additional stabilization and help maintain correct position in the water. For optimal results, aim to swim for about 30 minutes on as many days as you can. Swimming not only helps alleviate pain from herniated discs but also promotes overall health.

Walking

Walking is another excellent low-impact exercise that can help manage and prevent back pain from a herniated disc. Brisk walking is more effective than a leisurely stroll and can significantly aid in pain relief. Be mindful of your body and avoid movements that cause significant discomfort.

Begin slowly and gradually increase your pace and distance as you build endurance. Consistent walking can enhance overall spine health and help prevent the recurrence of herniated disc symptoms.

Light strength training

Engaging in light strength training can help strengthen the body and relieve pain from a herniated disc. Exercising with proper technique can help you maximize the benefit you get from exercising, as can focusing on strengthening exercises that target the muscles of the back and torso.

Consider using equipment like resistance bands or light dumbbells for these routines, which should engage your core, back, and legs. Aim to perform these workouts consistently 3 to 5 times a week. This frequency will help boost your metabolic rate for weight management, improve pain management, and enhance overall strength and function.

Exercises to avoid

To prevent worsening herniated disc pain, in the first few weeks after injury it may be best to avoid or reduce certain exercises that cause significant discomfort. Check in with a trainer or healthcare professional, but typical culprits might include:

  • high-impact actions like sprinting or jumping
  • heavy lifting
  • exercises that including sharp movements.

When to seek professional advice

If you are unsure about herniated disc exercises, or you are facing challenges of back pain related to disc herniation that don't improve with time or lifestyle changes, it is often helpful to consult a healthcare provider.

At MoreGoodDays®, we've crafted a program grounded in scientific research to support you in dealing with chronic back pain. Our approach helps dispel common myths about back pain, focusing on understanding its root causes, identifying triggers, and learning to alter your body's reaction to pain using neuroplasticity principles.

We provide tailored coaching and a range of tools to guide you in managing pain, supporting mental health, and enhancing your overall quality of life.