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Safe exercises for a herniated disk

Gentle exercises, stretches, and activities can all help relieve the pain of a herniated disk. Exercises can also strengthen and improve flexibility in the spine, neck, and back.

A herniated disk, or a slipped or ruptured disk, occurs when some of the soft jelly in the center of the disk slips out past the tough exterior. It can be very painful and may cause:

  • back pain
  • neck pain
  • shooting arm pain
  • tingling, numbness, or weakness in the leg or foot
  • tingling, numbness, or weakness in one arm

People with a herniated disk do not usually need surgery. Doctors often recommend physiotherapy to treat the symptoms of a herniated disk.

Any disk in the spine can become herniated, including the neck, but it most commonly occurs in the lower back. Different exercises can help depending on where the herniated disk is.

This article will look at some of the exercises that can relieve pain, speed recovery, and help prevent a herniated disk from recurring.


How can exercises help?

Exercises and physiotherapy are often important parts of recovery from a herniated disk. A doctor will usually recommend a few days of rest after experiencing a herniated disk.

Doing gentle activities and exercises will strengthen the muscles that support the spine and reduce pressure on the spinal column. They will also promote flexibility in the spine and may help reduce the risk of a herniated disk from recurring.

A doctor may suggest starting small and building up the level of activity slowly. They will discuss specific exercises that a person should and should not perform during the recovery period.

Gentle activities that can help with a herniated disk include:

  • yoga
  • swimming
  • walking
  • cycling

Perform all exercises in a slow and controlled manner, especially when bending or lifting. Exercises should not hurt. If a person feels pain, they should stop doing the exercises and speak with their doctor.

Below, we discuss exercises that can help treat a herniated disk pain in the neck and back.


Exercises for neck pain

Neck pain is common after a slipped disk. Pressure on the nerves in the neck can cause pain in the neck and shoulder muscles. It may also cause shooting pain down the arm.

The following exercise can help ease neck pain caused by a slipped disk in the upper spine or neck:

1. Neck stretches

Neck stretches

To relieve pain and pressure from a herniated disk near the neck, people can try the following exercise:

  1. Sit upright in a chair and move the chin toward the chest, then back against the headrest, stretching the neck.
  2. Move the left ear toward the left shoulder, then the right ear toward the right shoulder.
  3. Repeat this pattern several times.


Hamstring exercises

For those with a slipped disk in the lower spine, strengthening the hamstring muscles can help better support their core and back. Try the following hamstring stretches:

2. Seated chair stretch

For a gentle, seated stretch along the hamstring:

  1. Sit in a chair with one foot on the floor and the other extended out straight, with the heel on the floor.
  2. Straighten the back and lean forward over the extended leg until there is a stretch along the back of the upper thigh.
  3. Hold this position for 15–30 seconds.
  4. Switch legs and repeat several times.

3. Towel hamstring stretch

For a deeper hamstring stretch, try the following:

  1. Lie flat on a yoga mat with one leg lifted into the air.
  2. Wrap a towel around the foot of the leg in the air.
  3. Holding the towel, pull the leg toward the body.
  4. Hold for 15–30 seconds.
  5. Switch legs and repeat several times.


Exercises for low back pain

The following exercises can help ease pain in the lower back by building the muscles in the back. This will provide more support and help prevent future injuries.

4. Back flexion stretch

Back flexion stretch as woman on yoga mat hugs her knees to her chest

Back flexion exercises stretch the spine and back muscles. Speak to a doctor before performing these exercises after a back injury. To perform a back flexion stretch:

  1. Lie on the back and hold both knees toward the chest.
  2. At the same time, move the head forward until there is a comfortable stretch across the mid and low back.
  3. Repeat this several times.

5. Knee to chest stretch

A knee to chest stretch will work the muscles on each side of the body separately for a gentler stretch. Try the following:

  • Lie on the back with the knees bent and both heels on the floor.
  • Place both hands behind one knee and pull it toward the chest.
  • Switch legs and repeat several times.

6. Piriformis muscle stretch

The piriformis muscle is a small muscle located deep in the buttocks. To stretch this muscle:

  • Lie on the back with the knees bent and both heels on the floor.
  • Cross one leg over the other, resting the ankle on the bent knee.
  • Gently pull the crossed knee toward the chest until there is a stretch in the buttock.
  • Repeat on both sides.

Exercises to avoid

A person can get a herniated disk through heavy lifting, a sudden pressure on the back, or repetitive strenuous activities. People with a herniated disk should avoid doing strenuous activities during recovery.

People should avoid all exercises that cause pain or feel as though they are making the pain worse. Avoid hamstring exercises when experiencing sciatica.

People might wish to avoid high-impact activity, such as jogging or martial arts. These can jar the spine.

Starting small and building up to more intense exercise is the safest way to reduce symptoms. That said, starting exercises and stretches early can also help improve a person’s outcome.

A person should speak to a doctor about the best exercise regimen for their specific needs.


Summary

Doing gentle exercises and stretches can help ease the pain and pressure of a herniated or slipped disk. Strengthening the back and hamstring muscles can ease pressure on the spinal column to prevent pain and recurrence.

Always speak to a doctor before doing any exercises to make sure they will not damage the back or cause further pain. A doctor can recommend the best exercises for each individual depending on which disk has herniated.

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