A herniated disc is one of the most painful – and common – back injuries in the U.S. Once you receive a diagnosis of herniated disc, you may have questions about using exercise to help heal your back. Here are 14 safe herniated disc exercises to try (and four herniated disc exercises to avoid!).

What is a herniated disc?

All along the spine, intervertebral discs separate and cushion each vertebrae. An intervertebral disc consists of two layers: an inner, jelly-like layer called the nucleus pulposus and an outer, fibrous layer called the annulus fibrosis.

These intervertebral discs help the vertebrae move smoothly in the spine without bone-on-bone contact. A herniated disc occurs when some or all of the inner layer of the intervertebral disc ruptures through a weakened point in the outer layer. When the jelly-like inner layer leaks out through the outer layer, there is no cushion between the vertebrae. This can cause debilitating pain and inflammation.

A herniated disc occurs most frequently in the lumbar spine, specifically between the L4 and L5 vertebrae. This is the lowest region of the lumbar spine and may be less flexible than other vertebrae in this region. For this reason, it may be more susceptible to injury or the consequences of deterioration than other, more flexible parts of the spine.

What causes disc herniation?

Herniated discs have two major causes: normal spinal aging along with deterioration and injury. Both of these can be compounded by several risk factors, including:

  • Obesity
  • Diet
  • Smoking
  • Genetics

Sometimes patients will be diagnosed with a bulging disc and be curious as to how that differs from a herniated disc. The major difference between a herniated disc vs. a bulging disc is that a herniated disc has actually split open and leaked intervertebral fluid. A bulging disc is common, especially as we age. The intervertebral disc bulges out between vertebrae but retains its integrity (and jelly-like fluid, too).

A bulging disc can be just as painful as a herniated disc, though. The pressure a bulging disc places on nerves in the spinal column can produce pain, tingling, pins and needles sensations, and other symptoms. If a bulging disc is caught early, it may be possible to treat it before the condition worsens or turns into a herniated disc.

Should I try herniated disc exercises?

The short answer to the question of whether or not you should try herniated disc exercises is no – that is, until you have talked with your doctor and cleared it with them first.

They may also suggest you start your work with a physical therapist who can guide you and make sure you are helping, rather than hurting, your condition.

Once you get the all-clear, here are 14 safer exercises for herniated disc, and four movements or exercises to avoid.

14 safer exercises for herniated disc

Safe exercises for herniated disc stretch the long muscles of the hamstrings, stretch across the hips to relieve any sciatic pain you may be experiencing, and build strength in the core and back of the body to support a long, tall spine.

1. Seated hamstring stretch (with a chair)

Sit on a chair with another one in front of you. Keep one leg on the ground and place the other leg on the other chair. Sit up tall, extending to the crown of your head to the sky, and on an exhale, hinge at the hips to fold forward over your extended leg.

Only go as far as you can without rounding your back (this may not be very far to begin with). Think more about bringing your chin down rather than your head forward. Hold the stretch for at least 15 to 30 seconds, coming out of the stretch on an inhale. Switch legs. Do both sides