Up to 80% of individuals will suffer from an episode of back pain during their lifetime and disc herniation is frequently the underlying cause.
In the how to ease to lower back pain naturally article we gave you a great overview of the methods you can use to alleviate your back pain, and in this articles we will dive into specific herniated disc exercises that you can do at home.
Disc herniation most commonly occurs in the lower back (lumbar spine) and involves the displacement of disc material beyond the inter-vertebral disc space.
In the most simple terms, the spine is made up of individual vertebrae stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebrae is an intervertebral disc that provides a cushion so the vertebrae don’t rub together.
Furthermore, these discs (intervertebral discs) between the vertebrae, have a gel-like material inside (called a nucleus pulposus). A herniated disc is when that gel-like material ruptures through the outer layer of disc, and can press on the spinal cord or spinal nerves, resulting in symptoms, including disabling back pain and other associated symptoms that can make everyday activities difficult to perform.
This illustration may help:
According to a study published in BMJ Open, therapeutic exercise is an effective option for relieving pain and improving function in individuals with symptomatic lumbar disc herniation.
Symptoms of herniated lumbar disc:
– Lower back pain (typically the first symptom)
– Leg pain (traveling up and down)
– Leg numbness or tingling (traveling pain)
– Leg weakness
– Loss of bowel or bladder control (extremely rare and requires immediate medical attention)
Lower back pain is typically the first symptom of a lumbar disc herniation. Often this pain will last for a few days and then subside, but leg pain, numbness or tingling, and/or weakness of the lower extremity often follows.
Typically the leg pain eventually travels below the knee and can even affect the ankle and foot.
An extremely rare symptom of lumbar disc herniation is the loss of bowel or bladder control, which may signal that a more ominous problem is lurking – cauda equina syndrome. This syndrome results from compression of the spinal nerve roots and is considered a medical emergency that requires immediate attention.
How long does the pain last?
Most patients with a lumbar disc herniation will improve gradually over a period of days to weeks, with most patients being symptom free within 3 to 4 months.
There are a wide variety of treatment options available to patients including conservative measures and surgical intervention. For this article, I’m going to focus on exercises for herniated disc.
Patients with lumbar disk herniation often come into my office with moderate to severe pain, but the good news is that the patients that actively participate in an exercise program often report a significant reduction of pain and improved ability to perform their activities of daily living.
7 Herniated Disc Exercises For Lower Back
Please do them gently!
According to this Clinical Evaluation and Treatment Options for Herniated Lumbar Disc “The McKenzie exercise program is believed to be one of the most beneficial. This program is individualized to the patient’s symptoms and emphasizes exercises that minimize or centralize radiating pain.”
Therefore, we have included many “Extension” type exercises from the Mckenzie method for you to try. If any of these exercises cause more pain, please stop and see your physician.
1. Spinal Decompression
How it helps – Spinal decompression should be the very first thing you do to treat a herniated or bulging disc because it essentially creates space between your vertebrae, and thus takes pressure off the discs.
How to do it
– Use a bar or the top of a door (or anything you can hang from) and allow your body to “just hang”.
– Hang for 30 seconds and do 3 sets.
– If you feel worse doing this technique stop and try some of the other exercises instead.
2. Standing Extension
How it helps – This standing extension helps reverse what you do on a daily basis (hunching)… Since most bulging discs and herniated discs are caused by poor posture and repeated flexion of the spine (esp bending fwd in bad posture), this stretch helps push the disc back to neutral position.
How to do it
– Begin this exercise by standing up with good posture. Now take both hands and place them on both sides of your lower back. Now with the help of your hands push your pelvis forward and extend your spine back. Follow the extension with your neck so that you end up facing the ceiling.
– Start with 10 repetitions and do 2-3 sets.
– This one is particularly great to do when you need a break from sitting at your desk…
3. Half Cobra Pose (Prone Lumbar Extension)
How it helps – The Half Cobra Stretch helps to push the disc material back towards the center of the inter-vertebral disc to allow for improved healing. The goal of repeated lower back extension is the “centralization of symptoms”, which basically means pain that travels down the affected leg to the foot should come back up closer to the low back – which will in turn alleviate the pain.
How to do it
– Begin this exercise by lying on your stomach (prone position) and slowly prop yourself up on your elbows while keeping your hips in contact with the floor.
– Hold the prop-up position for 10-15 seconds before returning to the prone position (lying face down).
– Gradually increase to holding the end position for 30 seconds. Aim for 10 repetitions of this stretch.
** Initially, you may not be able to tolerate this position very well, so make sure you start slowly and carefully.
4. Full Cobra Pose (Advanced Extension)
How it helps – This stretch is based on the same principle as the half Cobra pose above. This advanced extension helps to push disc material back towards the center of the intervertebral disc, with the goal of alleviating pain symptoms.
How to do it
– Once you’ve mastered the half cobra pose, you can increase the difficulty by moving to the advanced version of this stretch. Begin this exercise by lying on your stomach in the prone position (lying facing down) and slowly press up on your hands while keeping your pelvis in contact with the floor and lower back relaxed.
– Hold the prop-up position for 10 seconds. Aim for 10 repetitions of this stretch.
– Eventually try to hold this pose for longer if it feels good (20-30 seconds).
How it helps – This is one of the most popular herniated disc exercises. By combining two yoga poses, the cat-cow stretch can help to relieve pressure on the herniated disc by opening the intervertebral disc space. It also improves mobility of the spine, which may help to relieve disc herniation pain and speed recovery.
How to do it
– Begin this stretch on your hands and knees. Inhale and let your stomach “drop” towards the floor as you look up towards the ceiling.
– Follow this by exhaling and slowly rounding your spine while pressing into the floor with your hands and slightly curving your neck to look at your feet.
– Aim for 10 repetitions of this stretch and do 2-3 sets.
Related: Watch the Cat-Cow Stretch Video
Exercises 6 and 7 are meant to help stabilize and align your spine so that you don’t get herniated discs in the future.….
6. Bird Dog
How it helps – This exercise will help strengthen and stabilize your lower back and deep spine muscles. This will help you to maintain a good posture and avoid future episodes of herniated discs.
How to do it:
– Begin on your hands and knees with your hands positioned under your shoulders and knees positioned under your hips.
– Raise your left arm and reach it forwards until it is aligned with your torso; at the same time, kick your right leg backwards until is it aligned with your torso.
– Hold this position for 2-3 seconds before slowly returning to the starting position.
– Repeat with your right arm and left leg.
– Alternate sides for 10 repetitions and do 2-3 sets.
** Ensure that your head, neck, and back maintain a neutral alignment to minimize stress on your neck.
How it helps – Just like the bird dog, this “Core” exercise will help bring your pelvis into right position by strengthening the deep spinal muscles and glutes (butt muscles).
How to do it
– Begin lying on your stomach with your forearms against the mat.
– Engage your core and lift your body so that you are resting on your forearms and toes.
– Hold the plank position for 20-30 seconds.
– Aim for 5 to 10 repetitions of this exercise.
– When you’re ready, increase the intensity by increasing the time you hold the plank in 10 second increments.
** Ensure to keep your back straight throughout the entire exercise.
Related: Herniated disc exercises to avoid
While you may be tempted to spend your days in bed or on the couch for fear of aggravating your disc herniation pain, you shouldn’t! Performing these herniated disc stretches and exercises allows you to take a proactive approach towards your recovery and may help to reduce your symptoms and increase the overall health of your back.
Check out this video about Herniated discs from our Chiropractor, Dr. Oliver:
Other herniated disk treatment options include:
Rest – often a couple of days of rest will help to calm severe pain caused by lumbar disc herniation. However, it’s important that you don’t rest for longer than this as it can actually worsen pain and stiffness.
Anti-inflammatory medications – medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen may help to reduce inflammation and relieve pain.
Physical therapy – performing specific exercises to increase range of motion and strengthen muscles in your lower back and core may help to relieve pain and reduce your chance of re-injuring yourself.
Spinal manipulation – manipulation of the joints of the lower back may help to improve range of motion and decrease pain.
Massage therapy – may help to increase blood circulation and relax muscles thereby helping to reduce pain.
Epidural steroid injections – injection of corticosteroids into the affected area may help to reduce local inflammation and relieve pain.
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Licensed chiropractor, DC (Owner of Forme Clinic, Stoney Creek, ON, L8G 1B9)
Dr. Shaina McQuilkie graduated from Brock University in 2004 with a Bachelor of Kinesiology (Honours). She then attended D’Youville College, in Buffalo, New York and obtained her Doctorate of Chiropractic Degree in 2008. After graduating, Dr. McQuilkie practiced in a multi-disciplinary healthcare facility based in Hamilton, Ontario gaining experience treating a variety of musculoskeletal injuries.