Disc-related problems are painful. Whatever the term used to describe your condition (herniated, bulging, and slipped disc are sometimes used interchangeably), all refer to the same type of complication and, therefore, require a similar approach in their management.
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Exercise has proven to be beneficial for people with mild to moderate disc-related problems. (Those with advanced-stage disc issues will likely find exercise too painful and may even require surgery.) The right kind of exercise promotes mobility and increases flexibility and can also help strengthen your core—all of the muscles that attach to and help stabilize the spine and the pelvis.
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But what is “the right kind of exercise”? People with back problems are often encouraged to exercise, though they usually aren’t given much direction on exactly what to do—or what not to do. Exercising incorrectly can actually make a pre-existing condition worse. If you have a herniated (slipped) disc or a bulging disc, or a moderate amount of lower back pain, keep reading to find out what types of exercises to avoid.
Exercises To Avoid For A Herniated (Slipped) Disc, A Bulging Disc, Or Lower Back Pain
Any kind of exercise that puts pressure on the affected joints and overexerts your abdominal muscles should be avoided. These types of exercise include:
- Situps. Traditional situps put a lot of pressure on the lower back and strain the abdomen—in other words, they create the same types of abnormal forces that likely caused the disc injury in the first place.
- Leg lifts. Straight-legged leg lifts engage the tissue in a similar way as situps, therefore creating similar strain. Done repetitively, leg lifts are likely to be detrimental to your disc-related problem.
- Repetitive forward-bending at the waist. You might think that bending the back would be helpful, but the repetition of forward-bending exercises (like toe touches) actually stresses the disc, changing its configuration and forcing the inner layers of the disc outward even more.
- Overhead weightlifting. Lifting anything overhead activates the support structure mechanism of the lower back to keep you stable, which aggravates the disc condition.
- High-impact aerobic activities. Step aerobics, running, jogging, hard walking, repetitive stair-climbing, and similar activities are jarring to your lower back and will also make your current condition worse.
Beneficial Exercises For Disc-Related Problems
Abnormal forces caused the disc problem to begin with; your daily exercise shouldn’t be doing more of the same. Instead, choose exercises that minimize the forces on your lower back and don’t overexert your abdominal muscles. Doing any of the exercises below, daily, helps promote mobility and decrease (or remove) pressure on the disc, paving the way for it to heal naturally over time.
- Low-impact aerobic activities. Swimming pools provide an ideal way to get the necessary motion without putting pressure on the disc, so get in the pool and swim, do water aerobics, walk around, or even just stand around. Cycling is also a good low-impact aerobic activity.
- Pelvic tilts. Tilting the pelvis to remove the curvature of the lower back engages the tissue in a healthier way than situps. To do this exercise standing up, stand against a wall and place your hand where your back curves away from the wall. Tilt the pelvis from the bottom to flatten out that curve up against the wall. If you’re lying down, bend your knees and tilt your pelvis until you flatten out your back against the floor.
- Reverse crunches. Lie down on your back and bend your knees. Bring your knees to your chest, moving your hips off the floor. (Like a body curl.) When your buttocks are off the ground, lower everything back down and repeat.
Common Questions About Herniated Discs & Exercise
The Q&A below gives short answers to the most commonly asked questions about herniated discs and exercise. For more in-depth information, scroll up to the preceding article, or click on the links within each answer below.
1. What exercises can I do if I have a herniated disc?
You may do the same exercises for a herniated disc you would do for a bulging disc, but because herniated discs are typically more problematic, your movements may be more restricted by pain. Depending on the severity of your condition and your pain level, activities that will be helpful are leg-strengthening exercises, low-impact aerobic activities, and stretches. Spinal decompression therapy with a trained health professional is also an option.
2. What happens if a herniated disc goes untreated?
Most herniated discs actually get better on their own. Studies have shown that about 80 percent of herniated disc cases resolve themselves within approximately six weeks, but it could also take much longer than that, even many, many months longer. Usually, if the condition appears to be improving slightly at two to three weeks, there’s a high probability that it will resolve on its own. However, some patients may require surgery; those decisions are made based on the severity of pain and motor weakness, in conjunction with your doctor.
3. Can I make a herniated disc worse?
Yes. Exercising incorrectly or doing activities that put too much pressure on the affected joints can actually aggravate a herniated disc and put more pressure on surrounding nerves. Heavy weight lifting, bending, and twisting can certainly cause additional problems for a degenerating disc. Other things to avoid are sit-ups, leg lifts, and high-impact aerobic activities.
4. Is walking good for a herniated disc?
Absolutely. Walking is an excellent choice for patients with herniated discs, as it stimulates blood flow and oxygen to the cells. It also helps keep your discs hydrated, which is important for healing. Other low-impact aerobic activities to try are swimming and cycling. (But if any of these activities increase your pain, stop the activity and consult with your doctor.)
If you’re still uncertain about the types of exercises you should avoid with a herniated, slipped, or bulging disc (or lower back pain), talk to your doctor for additional guidance.