3 Herniated Disc Exercises for Back Pain

If you suffer from back pain — especially lower back pain — you’re definitely not alone. Back pain is one of the most common medical problems, affecting 8 out of 10 people at some point in their lifetimes. For many, a painful back injury will be more than just a one-time occurrence. There are many reasons for lower back pain to strike, and one of the most common is a herniated disc, specifically, a lumbar herniated disc.

To understand herniated discs–and the best exercises to treat herniated discs–let’s start by going over what a spinal disc is. 

Understanding Spinal Discs

The spinal discs that run along the length of your back play a critical role in their capacity as shock absorbers between the vertebrae and allow for multi-directional movement. Spinal discs also act as ligaments that hold the vertebrae of the spine together.


Illustration of a spinal disc annulus fibrous and nucleus pulposus


There are two parts to a spinal disc: a tough outer portion and a soft gel-like inner core. Think of spinal discs like a biological “jelly doughnut.” The outer portion is known as the annulus fibrosus, while the inner core is called the nucleus pulposus. These two pieces fit together and are held in place by cartilage-covered endplates. For each disc to function properly, it relies on moisture. Some 80 percent of a disc is composed of water when we enter the world as infants. Over time as we age, our discs dehydrate and become stiffer, making them less able to adjust to compression. 

If you feel like you have lost some of your back flexibility as you got older, you probably did. And if you have been having trouble with back pain lately, the cause is often due to herniated discs. 

Disc Herniation

A herniated disc, also called a slipped, ruptured, or bulging disc, is a painful condition that occurs when the soft, spongy nucleus pulposus leaks through the outer layer of the disc. When this occurs, your spinal discs can quickly go from shock-absorbing effectiveness to a nerve aggravating cause of back pain. 

A herniated lumbar (lower back) disc can occur when we lift something heavy, twist the wrong way, or for seemingly no apparent reason at all. It is, however, more likely to happen as we age, commonly affecting people between the ages of 35 and 50.

The now protruding disc can then put pressure on or irritate the nearby spinal nerve root, causing pain in the buttocks that runs down the leg, a condition known as sciatica.


Illustrated diagram of the lumbar spine and a herniated disc.

Physical Therapy for a Bulging Disc 

As you can probably imagine, a herniated disc is not a good thing to experience. 

A herniated lumbar disc can be extremely painful and make everyday movements like putting on shoes or getting in and out of the car sheer misery! But there is good news: herniated disc injuries often do not require invasive treatment such as surgery to resolve. Physical therapy for bulging discs can go a long way toward easing pain and restoring movement until the injury becomes asymptomatic and the pain stops. 

Physical therapy can help herniated discs for a few reasons:

  • Your immune system goes to work and ultimately reduces the size of the injury, as well as removing inflammatory proteins.
  • The water contained in the herniated fragment is reabsorbed by the body, also causing the fragment to shrink.
  • Extension exercises can sometimes help move the herniated portion of the disc away from the spinal nerve, alleviating pain.

3 Herniated Disc Exercises to Speed Healing

For adults between the ages of 30 and 50, a majority of back pain with disc herniation occurs in the lumbar spine. Doing specific stretching exercises for bulging discs can tremendously help in reducing pain. 

If you are currently suffering from a bulging disc, these three back exercises for herniated discs can help you feel better sooner. 


1) Laying Prone on Your Elbows

Start in a face-down, prone position on a firm surface. Place a soft flat pillow under your hips and abdomen if needed. Push up onto your forearms without raising your hips. Don’t strain! Hold for up to 30 seconds, and then slowly lower yourself back to starting position. Aim to work up to 10-15 repetitions and 2-3 sets with rests in between.


Man laying prone on elbows for herniated disc pain


2) Prone Press Up

Lie prone on your stomach, placing a folded towel or soft flat pillow under your hips and abdomen if needed to make you more comfortable. Bend your elbows by your sides so that your palms are flat on the floor on either side of your body with your forehead on the floor. Inhale and press up, keeping your head, neck, and back in alignment. Hold for 5 to 30 seconds, and don’t forget to breathe! On the exhalation, lower yourself back to the starting position. Repeat 3 to 5 times.

Man performing prone press up herniated disc exercise


3) Standing Lumbar Spine Extension

Place your hands on the backs of your hips and lean back as far as you can. Repeat as many times as directed by your physical therapist.

All of these herniated disc exercises are “recapturing” techniques that use the direction of extension to force the disc material forward and away from the source of the pain (i.e., the spinal cord or exiting sciatic nerve roots). They should eliminate pain and numbness in the leg, and the goal is to reduce leg symptoms first, which is known as “centralization of pain.” 

Perform these bulging disc exercises on a comfortable surface (such as an exercise or yoga mat). Soreness is common but should subside with rest. Pain should not increase; if it does, stop doing the exercise(s) and consult with your physical therapist for help.


Man performing standing lumbar spine extension

Bulging Disc Exercises to Avoid

The three stretches outlined above are just a few exercises recommended by Physical therapists to provide back relief and speed up the healing process for a herniated disk. You should always speak to your physical therapist before you begin any exercise regime if you have a compromised disc. 

When doing any sort of exercise for a herniated disc, use your body as the best indicator. If it hurts, stop and do not repeat the exercise. And never hesitate to bring your questions or concerns to your physical therapist. 

With that being said, these are herniated disc exercises you should avoid: 

  • Toe touches
  • Sit-ups
  • Leg lifts
  • Lifting over the head

All too often, these exercises put too much stress/pressure on the spine and can worsen your back pain. 

Herniated Disc Physical Therapy Near You 

At Cawley Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation, we’re committed to providing our patients with the most comprehensive, personal, individualized skilled physical therapy services available. Call us at (570) 208-2787 or email us at cawleyptfrank@gmail.com to schedule an appt with our team of professionals. 

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