Gentle Movements: Yoga for Herniated Disc Recovery

Initiating or continuing with a yoga regimen is possible even with a herniated disc. In fact, yoga can speed up the healing process by increasing blood flow to the injured area. It also can help with chronic pain by relaxing the body, reducing stress, and boosting your mood and overall wellbeing. Yoga, with it's blend of physical movement and mindfulness practices, stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which is linked to a reduction in perceived pain.

In this article we will talk about the benefits of yoga for herniated discs, how to do it safely and how to incorporate it into your back pain management program. By the end of this you will know how to use yoga to help your pain.

Can yoga help a herniated disc?

Herniated discs usually heal naturally over time. However, research indicates that an appropriately tailored yoga regimen can significantly reduce the pain that comes from lumbar (lower back) disc herniation3. In one study focused on patients with herniated discs, those who practiced yoga showed significant progress. They experienced less pain, reduced disability, and improved overall function compared to those who did not practice yoga4.

If your back pain persists for more than three months, there may be another underlying issue at play. As strange as it sounds, having a herniated disc might not be the thing that's causing you pain – in fact, lots of people with disc herniations actually experience no symptoms. Therefore, if your pain persists, looking for other possible causes could be more important than an MRI result showing a herniated disc. Other conditions, such as referred pain or central sensitization, might be responsible for your back pain.

Central sensitization

Central sensitization is when your central nervous system becomes extremely sensitive so that things wouldn’t normally hurt, such as light pressure, cause you to feel pain. You might feel pain more strongly than expected, or feel pain with no apparent reason or cause.

Research shows back pain isn’t just about a physical issue like a herniated disc. It’s about how the central nervous system – your brain and spine – processes pain5.

The great news is that anything that helps alleviate stress, such as yoga, can reduce central sensitization and hence reduce pain.

What are the benefits of yoga for a herniated disc?

Research has shown that yoga is as effective as physical therapy in managing chronic low back pain and symptoms of disc herniation. The unique strength of yoga is its holistic approach. It promotes mindfulness and aligns both mental and physical health to confront pain using neuro-psychological methods1. Yoga therapy also helps improve the following:

  • alignment and posture
  • strength in the muscles throughout the body
  • decreased muscle tightness
  • increased circulation, aiding the repair process
  • easing tension around the lumbar spine
  • enhancing flexibility.

The mental health benefits of yoga

Practicing yoga not only helps your body but also your mind.

When you focus during yoga, you connect more with your body. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system – part of your nervous system that is activated when you feel safe. This helps your body trigger a relaxation response, which can lower stress hormones, leading to a slower heart rate and a better mood. this is part of reducing central sensitization.

All of this helps you relax deeply1. This relaxation is crucial for managing chronic pain because it can help to reduce muscle tension and mental stress – both of which are known to exacerbate pain. Yoga also helps reduce emotional stress and discomfort that you might experience because of your condition.

How to perform yoga with a herniated disc

When practicing yoga with a herniated disc it is important to be gentle with yourself. Focus on strengthening and stretching the body without causing stress.

Always listen to your body and adjust the intensity of your practice as needed and use props or modifications for poses when necessary. The goal is to promote healing in your spine by doing exercises that support the intervertebral discs. A well-informed yoga practice can help in managing the symptoms effectively.

Know when to push through pain & when to stop

Yoga therapy prioritizes balance and encourages you not to ignore or push through pain. If a yoga pose causes significant discomfort, tingling, or numbness, stop immediately and take a break, or check in with a yoga instructor to discuss how to make the pose more comfortable.

Think of your yoga mat as a place to explore and understand your body’s sensations. This understanding is very helpful in managing chronic pain. It guides you to practice yoga in a mindful and safe way.

Focus on your breathing

Breathing in a controlled way is very important in yoga. It helps you move carefully and supports every stretch. Breathing is more than just taking in air. Each breath helps you feel calm and relaxed.

When you focus on your breathing, you activate the vagus nerve. This is part of the parasympathetic nervous system and might help your body relax2. As your muscles relax and your back pain reduces, you will see the benefits of practicing yoga mindfully and slowly.

What are the best yoga poses when you have a herniated disc?

When dealing with a herniated disc, certain yoga poses can be particularly beneficial. Among the top three, the Cat Cow pose, Locust pose, and Downward-facing Dog pose stand out for their ability to support spinal health and alleviate discomfort.

Cat Cow pose

Imagine your spinal fluids moving smoothly as you switch between arching and rounding your back. This helps to nourish each vertebra. With regular practice, this pose can improve the way your spine functions, making it more flexible and smooth.

But it's not just about flexibility. This pose also strengthens your core muscles. Each repetition of Cat Cow gives your core muscles a workout, which in turn supports your spine and helps reduce the pain from a herniated disc.

Locust pose

The Locust pose is excellent for your lower back health. This pose requires you to lift and strengthen your body, activating the muscles that support your lower back. Think of your body like an archer’s bow, with your spine as the string ready to release tension and discomfort.

As you rise into this pose, your chest expands. It creates a balance between strength and openness, promoting overall spinal health.

Downward-facing Dog pose

The Downward-facing Dog, or just the Downward Dog, is a well-known pose. Plant your hands firmly on the ground, and reach your heels down, giving you a feeling of expansion and strength, and a wonderful stretch down the back of the body.

While you hold this pose, your hamstrings stretch, your shoulders open up, and your back feels a gentle release. These movements help balance your body and can ease the discomfort from a herniated disc.

Camel pose

This pose will enhance flexibility in your upper spine, lumbar spine, and upper back. Additionally, the Camel pose is known for its ability to open up the chest and shoulders, which can lead to better breathing and increased lung capacity. This is especially helpful for those who spend a lot of time sitting.

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How to incorporate yoga into a treatment plan for back pain

Incorporating yoga into your treatment plan involves a multidisciplinary approach that involves addressing both the physical and psychological aspects of your pain. This consists of retraining your pain response, medication as an enabler to help you manage your symptoms, and lifestyle adjustments to suit your needs. A yoga teacher can provide you with personalized guidance and support.

Retraining your pain response

Pain is not just physical; it’s emotional, mental, and environmental. Retraining the way our brain responds to pain involves understanding what is making your pain worse. Is it stress, negative thoughts, or certain activities? Once you know what those are, you can change them. That might mean eating better, sleeping more, moving more, or thinking and responding differently to those triggers. Over time, you can retrain your brain and it will hurt less and be less of an issue.

Sleep

Sleeping well can be challenging when you have back pain, but it's crucial for recovery. Here are some tips to enhance your sleep and overall health:

  • Stick to a sleep schedule with 8 hours of sleep and consistent bedtime and wake-up times.
  • Limit naps to avoid interfering with your nighttime sleep.
  • Stay active during the day to improve your sleep quality at night.
  • Develop a bedtime routine that excludes screens to help your brain wind down before sleep.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary by keeping it dark and quiet.
  • Monitor your caffeine intake, especially in the afternoon and evening, as it can stay in your system and hinder sleep.
  • Avoid heavy meals and alcohol before bedtime, as they can disrupt your sleep.
  • Engage in relaxing activities outside of sleep to better manage your symptoms and sleep.

Medication as an enabler

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen can help relieve pain and reduce inflammation in the muscles of your back. If your pain is severe, your doctor might prescribe other medications. These could include muscle relaxants or even stronger pain medications like narcotics, which can provide more significant relief.

However, it's important to understand that these medications are just one part of your overall treatment plan. They are not a long-term solution. Using any medication for an extended period can affect your body's central nervous system. Over time, your body can become tolerant to these drugs, meaning you may need higher doses to achieve the same pain-relieving effect.

Stress management

Although stress is an inevitable part of life, learning to manage it can mitigate its effects on your body. Implementing effective stress management techniques can prevent everyday stressors from manifesting as physical pain.

There are various strategies to manage stress. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you alter your thoughts and responses to stress. Practicing mindfulness can keep you grounded and serene. Additionally, seeking social support is crucial. Engaging with friends, joining support groups, or consulting a counselor can provide emotional relief and encouragement.

More information

At MoreGoodDays®, we have developed a program grounded in scientific research to assist you with managing chronic back pain. Our method aims to dispel common misconceptions about back pain. We focus on understanding the root causes, identifying triggers, and teaching you how to change your body’s response to pain using principles of neuroplasticity.

We provide personalized coaching and tools to help you manage your 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.