May 11, 2023
If you have been diagnosed with a herniated disk, you may be wondering how to best manage it in order to reduce your pain and get back to your daily activities.
I was riding my bike with a group of friends on a Thursday night when I saw a voicemail from my spine surgeon. “Ms. Bradford, I just got the results of your MRI. You have an extreme herniated disk and we need to get you on an operating table.”
This shocked me because I thought I only had inflammation of my SI joint. Spine surgery put me out of commission for six weeks. I’ve learned so much about the spine since then.
In this guide, we will explore what a herniated disk is, what causes it, how it can be treated and what the best stretches and movements are for a person living with one.
It is important to note that although a herniated disk can be incredibly painful, there are plenty of ways to manage the pain and lead an active lifestyle. With the right strategies and treatment plan in place, you can minimize or even eliminate your discomfort—allowing you to get back to doing the things that you love.
What Exactly Is a Herniated Disk?
A herniated disk is a common spine problem, in which the softer material in the middle of the disk pushes out through a crack in the tougher exterior. This can happen when people experience a sudden impact or even just wear and tear to the disks over time. In medical terms, it’s called a “ruptured disk” or a “slipped disk,” but all three refer to the same condition.
Not everyone experiences symptoms with a herniated disk—in fact, some people may not even realize they have one—but those that do experience:
Numbness and tingling
Muscle weakness or spasms.
These symptoms can be caused by compression of the nerve root connected to the spinal cord, which can be excruciatingly painful and limit movement. The location of the herniated disk will also determine what type of pain you experience and where you feel it. The most common places for herniated disks are in the lower back and neck.
Common Causes of a Herniated Disk
A herniated disk is a condition that is caused by damage to the outer layer of the intervertebral disk, which results in a portion of the gel-filled center of the disk pushing out through a tear in the outer layer. This condition can cause pain and other symptoms, depending on where the tear occurs.
Common causes of a herniated disk include:
Repetitive Stress: Repetitive motions or activities like lifting objects can cause strain on the lower back, leading to a herniated disk.
Trauma: A traumatic event such as a bad fall or car accident can cause damage to your spine and lead to a herniated disk.
Age: As we age, our disks dry out and become less flexible making them more prone to tearing and resulting in a herniated disk.
Poor Posture: Prolonged sitting or standing with poor posture can put strain on your lower back muscles and lead to a herniated disk.
Diagnosing a Herniated Disk
If you think you might have a herniated disk, the first step is to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms, review your medical history and perform a physical exam.
Additional tests may be necessary to confirm the diagnosis, including:
X-rays: These images can help identify any damage to the vertebrae or nearby structures.
Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): Using radio waves and powerful magnets, this scan provides detailed images of the entire spine.
Electromyography (EMG): This test measures electrical activity in nerves and skeletal muscles and is used to diagnose muscle and nerve conditions.
Your doctor may also recommend other tests such as computed tomography (CT) scans or myelograms depending on the results of the initial tests. Once the diagnosis is confirmed, your doctor will discuss treatment options with you that are tailored to your specific needs.
Treatment Options for a Herniated Disk: Non-Surgical vs Surgery
When disk tissue tears or is otherwise damaged, it can lead to a herniated disk. Treatment for a herniated disk depends upon the severity of the condition, but generally, medical professionals will start by recommending non-surgical treatments like physical therapy and medications. In more severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
Non-surgical treatments such as physical therapy and medications can help reduce pain and inflammation from a herniated disk. Heat and ice therapy can help relieve pain and muscle stiffness while strengthening exercises can prevent further injury. You might also get a cortisone shot to help with the pain, although you don’t want to rely on this method if the pain persists.
Doctors may also prescribe medications such as ibuprofen or muscle relaxers to ease pain. If these non-invasive treatments are unable to provide reliable relief or if the condition worsens over time, then surgery may be recommended.
Surgery is usually recommended for those experiencing chronic pain or significant nerve damage as a result of their herniated disk (often accompanied by significant numbness or tingling in the legs). Surgical treatments vary depending on the location of the herniation (i.e., cervical, thoracic, lumbar), but typically involve removing the affected part of the disk that is pressing on the spinal nerves. Surgery should always be considered a last resort after other options have been exhausted.
The Best Exercises and Stretches for Herniated Disk Relief
When it comes to managing a herniated disk, there are plenty of exercises and stretches that can help relieve the discomfort. Here are some recommended stretches that can ease pain and help build strength in your back:
Walking: The day after my spine surgery, I went for a long walk. It might be tempting to rest after back surgery. Even if you don’t have back surgery, walking is a perfect exercise to work on your posture and keep the body mobile.
Cat-Cow Stretch: This exercise helps to improve spinal flexibility and relaxes the muscles in the back, shoulders, and chest. Start on all fours, arching your back like a cat, then move into a cow pose by arching your back in the opposite direction. Repeat 3-5 times.
Bird-dog: This was always my go-to exercise when I was having spine issues. Starting on all fours on the floor, extend one leg straight behind you (don’t move the thigh or hip above your butt). Imagine someone pulling that thigh away from you. Engage the core by imagining a drawstring pulling your hip points together or zipping up a pair of tight pants. If you feel ok here, extend the opposite arm straight in front of you.
Abdominal Bracing Exercise: Lie down on your back with knees bent, feet flat on the ground, hands on your thighs. Inhale deep, then on the exhale, push your thighs away from you while flattening the curve in your lower back. Inhale to release, then exhale to engage.
Everyday Tips for Managing and Preventing Herniated Disk Pain
When living with a herniated disk, it's important to understand how to limit the pain on a daily basis. Here are some tips to help manage and prevent herniated disk pain:
Abdominal Strengthening Exercises
Strengthening the abdominal muscles helps to reduce stress on the spine and can help alleviate herniated disk pain. Core exercises such as planks, side-planks and bridges can help to strengthen these muscles and are easy enough for you to do at home.
Stretching regularly is one of the most effective ways of alleviating herniated disk pain. Stretches such as the hamstring stretch and piriformis stretch can help reduce tension in the hamstrings and hips which can relieve pressure from your spine. Although many people will focus on forward bends or back bends, don’t forget lateral bending. Consult with your doctor about doing twists, especially if you’ve had back surgery.
Good posture is key when it comes to reducing herniated disk pain. Maintaining good posture during activities such as sitting or standing will help reduce strain on your spine and provide support for your back muscles and disks.
Making Adjustments at Home
Making small adjustments at home can also provide relief from herniated disk pain. For example, try using a lumbar support cushion while sitting or raising your computer monitor so it's closer to eye level instead of craning your neck downward when working. I use yoga blocks to raise my feet slightly from the floor while I work at my desk.
In conclusion, a herniated disk is an injury to the intervertebral disk which can be caused by repeated stress on the spine, trauma, or general wear and tear. The best way to treat a herniated disk is to control the pain and inflammation with non-surgical treatments, such as physical therapy, stretching and rest.
However, if the pain persists, surgery may be necessary to restore movement and reduce symptoms. Understanding how a herniated disk forms, how it can be treated, and the best stretches and movements to avoid can help you achieve a full recovery.