A herniated cervical disc occurs when one of the discs in the neck protrudes on a nearby nerve and causes pain. In this article we’ll discuss this condition and give you specific exercises that you can do at home to alleviate your pain.
So, What Is a Cervical Herniated Disc?
A Herniated cervical disc is when the inner material (aka nucleus pulposus) from one of the discs in the neck protrudes or makes it way out of the disc’s outer protective layer (aka annulus fibrosus) and pinches on the nerves in the neck – This can cause painful symptoms (but not always). The most common levels of cervical disk herniation are C5-6 and C6-7.
* Please note, not all herniated discs cause pain so you want to get a proper diagnosis.
The following image is a very simplified illustration of this:
Symptoms of Cervical herniated disc (How do you know you have it)
- Pinched nerve in the neck (aka Cervical radiculopathy)
- Neck pain, Spasms, or Stiffness. This will typically result in difficulty or inability of the patient to move his or her neck in one motion or the other (this is wordy) such as turning the head, side bending, or extension/flexion).
- Muscle weakness or paralysis (medically known as Cervical Myelopathy) – If the protruding disc progresses and applies enough pressure, it can lead to severe weakening of muscles or inability to use the muscles properly. This is an indication of a more serious problem and should be evaluated by a doctor ASAP.
– (Medically known as Cervical Radiculopathy) causing radiating pain down the arm/s, hand, shoulder, shoulder blade, chest or sensory changes including burning, tingling, numbness, pins or needles down the arm(s).
Common Causes of Cervical herniated disc Include:
- Poor Posture/Posture Dysfunctions – Usually this means Kyphotic posture which is defined by rounded shoulders and a forward head position – aka text neck.
- Trauma – This can occur when a person sustains a high impact force to the spine. Activities typically include: contact sports, work injuries, and repetitive trauma. This high impact for can cause a “rip” or “tear” in the outer fibers of the disc that can cause a sudden herniation.
Treatment of a herniated disc Include:
- Manual therapy Spinal manipulation, mobilization, and massage.
- Exercise therapy and Posture re-education- working on correcting posture and postural strength is generally the first line approach in that it can tackle one of the possible root causes of the pain. It can provide good results with minimal investment (See exercises below)..
- Traction – This can decompress the spine and can provide relief.
- Ice Therapy/Heat Therapy. Usually in the beginning ice therapy is recommended to reduce inflammation.
In this article we’ll focus on some of the exercises and stretches you can do at home.
Please be careful, if any of these exercises cause more pain, stop, and try a different exercise/approach. Pain and/or numbness into your arm are more worrisome so if you experience any increase in these symptoms, stop, and do not perform that exercise.
The goal with all of these exercises is to cause “centralization” of the symptoms. This means that when you do any of these exercises – you want your symptoms to come back/feel closer to the spine (center), rather in than in your shoulder/arm/hand. This will signal that it may be working for you.
5 Cervical Herniated Disc Exercises
1. Chin Tucks
This exercise will help to improve the strength of the deep neck flexors (front of the neck muscles), helping to reduce forward head and rounded shoulders posture (Upper Crossed Syndrome).
How to do it:
– Sit or stand with a good posture.
– Retract the neck back and retract the chin at the same time.
– Hold the chin tuck for 2-3 seconds.
– Release the neck forward.
– Repeat 10 times.
2. Neck Extensions (Supported with towel)
This stretch can release some of the pain symptoms and push the disc material back into place. If this stretch causes more pain, move on to the next one.
How to do it:
– Sit at the back of a chair with an upright posture while holding a towel wrapped around your neck
– Now stretch your spine up and over the back of your chair.
– Keep tension in the towel, to support your neck.
– Do 5-10 Extensions
3. One Arm Pec Stretch – At A Wall (Do Both Sides)
This will stretch out the chest area which can be tight and pull the neck into a bad posture. Releasing the pecs will allow you to be in a better posture and can alleviate some of the pain.
How to do it:
– Come close to a wall and stretch one arm behind you with the palm on the wall.
– Now lean forward and slightly away from the extended arm.
– Feel the stretch in your chest area.
– Hold for 30 seconds.
– Repeat on the other side
* Make sure you’re not just stretching you shoulder, but also the chest. Tweak the angle of your position to get the chest muscles.
* If you feel any pain, stop this exercise and try another one.
4. Upper Trapezius Stretch
This stretch can help alleviate some of the symptoms, as well as, add some mobility to your neck.
How to do it:
– Start either in a standing or seated position.
– Place one of your hands on the opposite side of your head.
– Now bring the head down towards your ear.
– Use the hand overhead to press your neck down – to get a deeper stretch (Not too hard).
– Hold for 30 seconds and do 2-3 sets.
#5. Scapular Retraction (Using Resistance Bands)
This exercise is meant to stabilize and strengthen the muscles in the mid-back which will allow your posture to improve.
How to Do It:
- Begin standing with a good posture
- Holding a resistance band (level of resistance you use depends on your individual strength level) with both hands, straighten your elbows and bring your arms out in front of you.
- While keeping your elbows locked, slowly move your arms out and back behind your body. You should feel the muscles between your shoulder blades contracting/squeezing.
- Only go out as far as comfortable. Some muscular discomfort (burning) is ok, but pain in the arms or neck is not.
- Avoid shrugging your shoulders toward your ears.
- Repeat 2×10, gradually increasing to 3×10.
- By the time you get to repetition number 8, 9, 10, this should be challenging. If it is not, increase the level of resistance on the band.
What about Over-the-Door Cervical Traction?
Lastly, Fix Your Ergonomics
If you don’t fix your upper back posture and daily habits, you condition may not improve, and could even get worse. Check out this article to learn the 10 steps to a proper sitting posture.
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 Ellenberg M, Honet J, Treanor W. Cervical radiculopathy. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 1994;75(3):342-352. doi:10.1016/0003-9993(94)90040-x
 Saal J, Saal J, Yurth E. Nonoperative Management of Herniated Cervical Intervertebral Disc With Radiculopathy.. Spine. 1996;21(16):1877-1883. doi:10.1097/00007632-199608150-00008
 Young I, Michener L, Cleland J, Aguilera A, Snyder A. Manual Therapy, Exercise, and Traction for Patients With Cervical Radiculopathy: A Randomized Clinical Trial. Phys Ther. 2009;89(7):632-642. doi:10.2522/ptj.20080283
Michael is UK registered chiropractor who holds a masters in chiropractic. He has worked with with patients, athletes and celebrities. He is passionate about strength and conditioning, rehabilitation, corrective exercises, injury prevention and all things movement based.