The Best Exercises to Try When You Have a Herniated Disc, According to Physical Therapists

Whether a herniated disc is to blame for your back pain or not, there are exercises you can do to ease back pain and build strength.

Published Date: Sep 5, 2023
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Herniated discs in your spine are very common, but how they affect people varies greatly. Some people with a herniated disc can walk around none the wiser because they don’t have any symptoms or pain. For others, a herniated disc may be accompanied by pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness. And while those symptoms may be related to the herniated disc, they could also be the result of another issue entirely. 

So whether you’ve been diagnosed with a herniated disc or have back pain that you think may be caused by a herniated disc, don’t feel like you’re stuck or doomed to a lifetime of pain. You don't have to be. Exercise can help you manage the pain, speed the healing process, and prevent or minimize future flare-ups. 

Read on to learn how exercise can help herniated discs and which exercises and stretches our Hinge Health physical therapists recommend.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Lori Walter, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Walter is a Hinge Health physical therapist with over 20 years of experience working with orthopedic injuries, pelvic health, and sports medicine.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.

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What is a Herniated Disc?

In between the 24 vertebrae (bones) of your spine are round, flat discs. “The discs are a cushion between the bones of the spine,” says Lori Walter, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. They act like shock absorbers and enable the spine to be flexible. Discs are gel-like on the inside and more fibrous on the outside. A disc herniates when the gel center pushes on the fibrous outer ring. 

You can herniate a disc by doing just about anything. One study found that 62% of people couldn’t recall exactly what had caused their herniated disc, while another 26% reported that it happened during the course of normal activities. Over time, the disc’s outer wall can weaken, increasing your risk of a herniated disc as you age. 

Sometimes a disc can herniate, and you’ll never know it because you don’t have any symptoms. Other times, the pressure can cause pain. “Symptoms vary based on the location of the herniation, how close it is to a nerve, or other inflammation in the area,” says Dr. Walter. “The pain can also be due to muscles straining to accommodate the back pain. It can be a combination of factors.

Herniations in the lower lumbar region of the spine can make sitting, sleeping, and lifting challenging. 

How Exercise Helps Relieve Pain

While there aren’t specific exercises that will address a herniated disc, movement is the best thing for back pain, says Dr. Walter. 

Lori Walter, PT, DPT
Movement improves blood flow to help with inflammation, and it mobilizes the muscles that are tight around the back in response to pain. Movement can calm down the alarm system of pain and build resilience, so the pain is less likely to come back.

Dr. Walter compares it to gymnasts developing calluses on their hands. When they develop sores from swinging on bars, they manage the pain but keep swinging. If they stopped doing their bar routines until their hands healed, they would likely reinjure them. By continuing to train, calluses develop, preventing more sores and allowing gymnasts to tolerate more swinging. The same principle applies when your back is hurting. Even gentle movement helps build resiliency like a gymnast builds calluses. 

We know it’s not easy to get moving when you’re in pain. “When there's pain, muscles tighten up and limit motion,” says Dr. Walter. 

But your muscles aren’t the only concern — your mind is, too. “A big fear people have is that they’re going to make their back pain worse,” says Dr. Walter. And if it hurts when you move, it’s understandable that you’re likely to restrict your movement. However, the less you move, the weaker muscles get, resulting in muscle imbalances that can make you prone to reinjury and future pain flares. 

Conversely, movement encourages blood and oxygen delivery to tissues for healing, keeps muscles strong and limber, and helps reduce pain. In other words, don’t talk yourself out of exercise — it’s exactly what you need to fight the pain and prevent it in the future. Start with gentle exercises that don’t aggravate your pain too much. This will help you find your movement sweet spot and teach your body and mind that it’s safe to be active.

Exercises When You Have a Back Pain Flare

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  • Pelvic Tilt
  • Knee Hug
  • Knee Rocking
  • Back Extension
  • Prone Press Up

These gentle mobility exercises loosen tight muscles and increase blood circulation to the area to aid in healing. Start with the first three exercises, moving slowly in a comfortable range of motion and working up to 10 reps of each. As your pain subsides, you can add the last two exercises.

If you’re having difficulty with these exercises or are uncomfortable exercising on your own, a physical therapist can help. They can provide modifications or suggest alternate exercises that address your personal needs. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

Beyond these moves, don’t forget about walking. Walking is a great exercise to improve blood flow, relax muscles, reduce inflammation, and ease pain. Plus, it’s often tolerable when you have low back pain. Even short walks can be beneficial. If walking aggravates your pain, you could try walking in a pool. The buoyancy of the water can reduce pressure on your spine.

Exercises to Prevent Pain Flares

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  • Abdominal Bracing
  • Bent Hollow Hold
  • Bicycle Crunch
  • Diving Superman

If you’re someone who experiences flares that may be due to a herniated disc, then you want to take advantage of moments when the pain has subsided to focus on strengthening your abdominal and back muscles. A strong core supports your spine and reduces your chances of low back pain. Aim to do these exercises at least three times a week, three to five reps of each, holding each rep for about five seconds. As you become stronger, you can increase the length of time you hold each move.

These exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to improve strength in your back and all the muscles throughout your body that support your back, like your core, glutes, and hamstrings.

The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.

When to See a Doctor

For most people, medical intervention isn’t required to treat back pain that may be impacted by a herniated disc. With gentle movement and other at-home remedies, pain should subside in a matter of weeks. Consult a doctor if:

  • Symptoms don’t improve after a few weeks or get increasingly worse

  • Pain radiates to other parts of the body

  • You have a fever, which, when coupled with back pain, could signify you have an infection.

PT Tip: Ease into Movement

When you’re in pain, it can be hard to motivate yourself to exercise because you’re understandably worried about making the pain worse. But movement is truly the best medicine when you get off to the right start. Beginning with gentle exercises and listening to your body can help you ease into a regular routine that can provide long-term relief and spinal health. “You want to use a comfortable range of motion,” says Dr. Walter. “You may feel a little pain, but the discomfort shouldn’t last beyond when you're in the movement. I call it edging the pain. You're going into it a little and then back out. The more you do that, the more you’ll improve your mobility and get your muscles to relax.” 

How Hinge Health Can Help You

If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program. 

The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.  

Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition. 

Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.

This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.

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