Nine Safe Exercises for a Herniated Disk

A doctor explains the concept of a herniated disk to a patient.

Age and injury put everyone at eventual risk of a herniated disk. The engineering marvel that is the human spine is remarkable in its combination of toughness and flexibility. But its weak point—the soft, rubbery cushions between each vertebra—are subject to slippage. When this happens, pressure or even damage can occur on nearby or encapsulated nerves.

The condition is known as a herniated disk and can result in pain, numbness, weakness, or even incapacity in the arms or legs. Pain relief for a herniated disk isn’t too hard to come by, though. Simple exercises and stretching will often do the trick.

 

What Causes A Herniated Disk?

Most often, disk degeneration resulting in wear and tear can lead to disk herniation. The disks become prone to rupture as we become less flexible with age. Lifting heavy objects while twisting or turning can also be a more immediate cause of a herniated disk.

Other factors that increase our risk include being overweight, smoking, or physically demanding jobs requiring frequent heavy lifting. And some people have the bad luck of being genetically predisposed to this type of injury.

Fortunately, herniated disks rarely require surgery. You can usually rehabilitate at home with simple exercises for a herniated disk.

 

Exercising With A Herniated Disk

Rest is no longer the leading prescription recommended by doctors. Managing chronic back pain or treating a herniated disk is best approached through simple exercises—and even if you aren’t currently suffering from a herniated disk, exercise is a great way to prevent future injury!

But first, keep in mind that some exercises are best avoided to prevent aggravating the condition:

  • Don’t do any heavy lifting.
  • Avoid repetitive strenuous activities.
  • Avoid twisting while under a heavy load.
  • Avoid high-impact exercises and explosive tasks.
  • And while it’s not an exercise, avoid prolonged sitting.

With any exercises for low back pain, it’s best to maintain a neutral lumbar spine. Focus on engaging the core muscles while performing exercises that involve the arms and legs. It would be best if you also made exercise a consistent part of your lifestyle, warming up gradually and moving on to more intense exercises only when your body is ready for it.

A woman in bird dog pose while taking a pilates class to recover from a herniated disk.

 

Best Exercises For A Herniated Disk

While not specifically targeting the back, these big three classic exercises are some of the best things you can do for it:

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Biking

With walking, swimming, and biking, you maintain the important neutral spine while dynamically loading the tissues around it, which is great for gently promoting overall strength and decreasing back pain.

  • Pilates
  • Yoga

Pilates and yoga can be great for strengthening and stretching. With yoga particularly, though, be careful about poses that put your back into the flexion position. It might feel good at first, but it can put extra pressure on the lumbar disks. 

  • Neck stretches. A slipped disk in the cervical spine can lead to neck, arm, and shoulder pain. Gently stretch the neck by alternately tucking and raising the chin, then moving the left ear toward the left shoulder, then the right ear toward the right shoulder. Repeat several times.
  • Hamstring stretches. Perform these seated in a chair or lying on your back, keeping your spine in a neutral position throughout. Stretch one leg at a time. If you’re lying on your back, you’ll find it easiest to wrap a towel around your foot so you can pull the straightened leg overhead towards you.
  • Bird dog. While on hands and knees in the tabletop position, raise one arm out in front of you while simultaneously raising and straightening the opposite leg behind you. Balance and hold this position, then lower the arm and leg and repeat on the opposite side. Repeat several times.
  • Side bridge. Lying on your side, support yourself on one elbow stacked below your shoulder. Support your lower body by keeping the knees bent and stacked. Then raise your hips to create a bridge. Raise and lower this bridge. Repeat.

 

Key principles to follow

These are all great exercises to perform when you’re healing from—or just trying to prevent—a herniated disk. But there are many more exercises that are safe and helpful. The trick is to focus on a couple of key principles:

  1. Keep a neutral lumbar spine while exercising.
  2. Engage the core muscles to keep the spine stable (and free from twisting) while working your arms, legs, or both.

 

Recover Safely With PrePak

Recovering from a herniated disk can be a process. But with physical therapy and proper exercise, you will be good as new in no time! However, using the proper techniques and form while working out is essential. Always refer to our instructional videos if you’re unsure how to complete a movement. If something doesn’t feel right, make sure you run it by your physical therapist.