Although certain exercises really can help to relieve herniated disc pain, it can be a real mine-field when choosing the right ones and which herniated disc exercises to avoid! Read on for the top herniated disc exercises to avoid – plus a fantastic set of alternative disc herniation exercises!
Aims of this post:
- To reveal the herniated disc exercises you need to AVOID – even though you’ll see them on YouTube all the time
- To discuss the exact mechanism for why you need to avoid it
- To give you a super-effective and safe alternative set of disc herniation exercises
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Herniated disc exercises to avoid – have you been aggravating your herniated disc unknowingly?
I am a huge advocate for finding the RIGHT exercises to do for a herniated disc, but as most people who suffer from this problem are aware, it’s all too easy to cause a flare up when you pick the wrong ones.
Luckily, I have put together this article which will show you the top herniated disc exercises to avoid – including the ones I unfortunately see being given to clients before they meet me, far too often…
I have also provided fantastic alternative options for someone who is suffering from sciatica (pain down the back of the leg) and wants to do something about it!
With this information, you will hopefully be able to make the right decision about treating your herniated disc naturally at home without making yourself 10 times worse!
Firstly, if you want to read more about what a herniated disc is, or if you’re not sure about whether you have one or not, you can read my ultimate guide to sciatica symptoms HERE.
For exercises to avoid specific to Piriformis Syndrome, click HERE!
Let’s get right in and identify the top herniated disc exercises to avoid, and exactly why you need to avoid them – PLUS, some of the best exercises for a herniated disc that you can use as an alternative!
The number one herniated disc exercise to avoid
The seated hamstring stretch
Have you ever been told that you need to stretch your hamstrings to help the pain at the back of your leg?
Maybe your personal trainer, physiotherapist or even doctor told you to stretch your legs to help with your herniated disc?
Well, if you’ve been doing the above stretch, there’s a good chance that you’ve been making the sciatica from your herniated disc WORSE, not better!
The hamstrings are a muscle group that sit at the back of the leg. They are certainly at risk of getting tight for lots of people – especially those who sit for long periods of the day like office workers. They are also often tight in people who play sports.
The hamstrings are depicted above in red.
If someone sustains a hamstring injury, often it is the correct thing to do to stretch the hamstrings.
However, if you are suffering with sciatica due to a herniated disc, this exercise is definitely one to be avoided.
This is the most crucial of the herniated disc exercises to avoid because it’s the one that I see patients doing all the time before they come to see me.
The reason people start to do this stretch actually seems quite sensible – if you have tightness at the back of your leg, and the hamstrings are known to get tight, surely it makes sense to stretch them?
However, in this case, that logic is definitely wrong!
Although someone with sciatica from a herniated disc is just as likely to have tight hamstrings and even though your pain is down the back of your leg, with sciatica it isn’t the hamstring that’s causing the pain; it’s the sciatic nerve.
You see, the sciatic nerve runs under the hamstrings, which is why it often feels like the hamstring itself that is causing the pain in sciatica.
So when you stretch in this way, it probably won’t help to alleviate the pain. It is actually likely to really aggravate your symptoms. I’ll explain why now…
If we look at the nerves in the body, they are all connected. The spinal cord, which runs between the bones in our spine, branches off to form every single nerve in the body. This includes the sciatic nerve.
When we slump forward and reach for our toes, like in a hamstring stretch, we are actually putting a STRETCH on the spinal cord, which in turn stretches the sciatic nerve.
When you have a herniated disc, your sciatica nerve is probably inflamed and painful.
And there is one thing that has become clear in the medical profession: Nerves hate to be stretched!
When you stretch a nerve, it will complain by increasing its sensitivity and giving you more pain than before. This pain can run all the way from your back to your toes.
The action of putting the sciatic nerve on a stretch is actually a “provocation test” used by doctors and physiotherapists to diagnose sciatica. It is called a provocation test because it PROVOKES symptoms; it definitely doesn’t make them better!
You can see one of the nerve provocation tests to assess for sciatica below:
Looks a lot like the hamstring stretch from the above pictures right??
This is why we need to avoid stretching the hamstrings – because we inadvertently stretch the sciatic nerve as well.
An embarrassing story
I have a slightly embarrassing story for you all here:
I was once treating a patient who was referred through to me for “hamstring tightness” at the back of both legs.
I assessed him and agreed that there certainly was hamstring tightness in this gentleman, and that could be a cause for his symptoms. This was especially likely because he spent a large proportion of his day sitting.
I sent him away with lots of hamstring stretches to do at home.
The next week, he came in to see me complaining that his pain was no better. If anything, it was getting slightly worse.
I re-assessed him, making sure to ask him about his back and any sciatica symptoms, which were all clear.
I sent him away again, after doing some soft tissue work on his hamstrings, only for him to come back in again next week with no change yet again!
In the end, I asked for a specialist to review him with me. The specialist suggested that we stop all hamstring stretches and start “nerve flossing exercises” (which I will show you later in the article).
Sure enough, by the following week, this gentleman was drastically better when he came to see me. Turns out his symptoms were caused by sciatic nerve irritation from a herniated disc, not the hamstrings at all!
I was foxed by the fact that he didn’t have any back pain, or any other signs of sciatica. Now I know to ALWAYS test the sciatic nerve more thoroughly when I see my clients.
Other herniated disc exercises to avoid
There are certainly other variations of this hamstring stretch that you need to avoid, too.
A lot of these variations are present in exercises classes, like Yoga and Pilates.
Now I’m not saying that you need to avoid Yoga and Pilates; I actually think these are fantastic methods of returning to full fitness after a herniated disc.
It isn’t the core strengthening in Yoga and Pilates that helps your back pain and sciatica – read all about why in this post HERE.
It’s just some of the stretches within these classes can put you in a position that is similar to the hamstring stretch we talked about before, and this can aggravate your symptoms.
One of these positions and another herniated disc exercise to avoid is the “downward dog”:
This position almost flips the hamstring stretch upside down, and although it looks different, it is still putting a stretch on the hamstrings. You may find that bending forward like this is painful anyway, as lots of my herniated disc clients do.
Another commonly prescribed herniated disc exercise to avoid is this variation of the hamstring stretch, shown here:
The above stretch will probably feel absolutely awful for you if you are suffering from a herniated disc right now!
You should definitely avoid this exercise if you have sciatica from a herniated disc. It is yet another variation of the number one herniated disc exercise to avoid that we spoke about earlier, just with you on your back instead of sitting.
This video shows THREE more hamstring stretches that are herniated disc exercises to avoid – even if your doctor or physio said otherwise:
Hopefully now you can see why stretching the hamstrings has to be the number one herniated disc exercise to avoid.
I hope this will be enough of an explanation for you to take it OUT of your own treatment plan!
But What Else Should I Avoid If I Have a Herniated Disc?
Here are some more of the exercises and activities to avoid with sciatica pain from a herniated disc:
- Straight-legged sit-ups
These put extra, unwanted stress on the spine and also place tension on the sciatic nerve. Avoid these at all costs while suffering from a herniated disc.
- Heavy Squats
While squats aren’t necessarily a “bad” exercise, when you have sciatica from a herniated disc, they may place strain on the lower back and increase disc pressure – making your sciatica worse.
- Straight-legged Deadlifts
Straight leg deadlifts (or Romanian Deadlifts) are actually good for your back… IF performed correctly – but one slight mistake and you can make a disc bulge worse. They also put a stretch on your hamstrings – which is exactly what we want to avoid as discussed in this article!
Now let’s discuss options for replacing the hamstring stretch with an effective alternative.
Try These Disc Herniation Exercises Instead!
So now we know that hamstring stretches are herniated disc exercises to avoid, what can we do instead? Let’s talk about some of the better exercises for a herniated disc – ones that aren’t likely to make your symptoms worse.
There is a very effective exercise to replace the hamstring stretch with, which is in some ways similar but the subtle differences make it a completely separate technique.
The exercise you should replace it with is called “Sciatic Nerve Flossing”.
Nerve flossing is a technique which relates to the fact that nerves have to run through very tight spaces to get to their target limb or tissue.
Along their windy course, they can get trapped or pinched, which directly causes irritation. This irritation is felt as sciatica.
If we can perform specific movements which “floss” the nerve safely through these tight spaces, we can help it to “glide” more freely through these gaps, which can dramatically reduce symptoms!
I will show you how to perform this nerve flossing technique with both pictures and a YouTube video, so you can copy at home.
Start off perched on the side of a seat or bed. Extend your painful leg in front of you. Lift your chin up, and as you do so, bring your toes up towards you at the ankle while keeping the leg straight.
Then, drop your chin down to your chest while also dropping the toes towards the floor as shown in the second picture.
To perform this exercise, simply alternate between the first and second position shown.
Here is a video of this action in motion. The lady doing it has her foot lifted off the floor, but you can keep yours down if you’d rather:
What Other Exercises Can I Do for a Herniated Disc?
Along with the nerve flossing techniques that I have described above, there are other stretches you can do that will help your herniated disc.
Even though stretching the hamstrings is not advisable when you have a herniated disc causing sciatica, that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from stretching other muscles in the legs, like the gluteals, piriformis and quadriceps.
Let’s have a quick look at some easy stretches for these muscles below. Remember to STOP any of these stretches if they make your symptoms worse at any point!
Try Stretching the Opposite Leg
Try the following video yourself at home to relieve sciatic nerve pain in either the right or the left leg. This is a hugely effective alternative to the herniated disc exercises to avoid and one that I prescribe often:
Sat on the floor as shown, pull one knee across your body towards the opposite shoulder and hold for 30 seconds.
Repeat this a few times per day on each side.
Lying on the floor as shown, cross the leg to be stretched over the other leg.
Now, bring both knees up towards your chest. You should feel a stretch in your buttock. Hold for 30 seconds.
A runners favourite – whilst standing, bend the knee that is be stretched and grasp the foot in your hand.
You should feel a stretch at the front of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds.
What Else Can I Do for a Herniated Disc, Other Than Disc Herniation Exercises?
This is a great question. Whenever treating this kind of problem, herniated disc exercises are only ONE part of the equation.
I would always take a holistic approach when treating anyone with this kind of problem. This holistic approach will involve looking at diet, exercise, general health and whether there are any products I can recommend to help the problem get better faster.
Here are some of my top tips:
#1 – Cut Walking Distance (Or Take Regular Breaks)
While walking will be good for a herniated disc, walking upright for extended periods of time can aggravate the symptoms of a disc herniation and cause increased pain, no matter how many herniated disc exercises you include in your routine.
My advice: Try to build in regular breaks into your walks. If you know there is a bench on your usual route, make an effort to stop and sit there for a while, even if you don’t feel you need to at the time.
#2 – Try a TENS Machine
Many of my patients with a herniated disc find that a TENS machine can help to relieve their symptoms, when used alongside herniated disc exercises.
A TENS machine works by sending a small electrical signal into the muscles of the back, providing pain relief in many cases and loosening tight muscles.
Here is an example of a TENS machine that I commonly recommend to my clients:
You can also find an entire post I wrote showing you the best TENS machines on the market at the moment by clicking HERE.
#3 – Use a Muscle Rub
Creams for muscle pain can help some people to experience relief and they are handy to carry around to use when walking, if the exercises for a herniated disc can’t shift the pain.
Here is the cream that we recommend for people with back pain due to a herniated disc:
#4 – Improve Your General Health
If you’re over-fifty and struggling to recover from a herniated disc, there may be some general health issues that are hampering your recovery.
While there are too many possibilities to list here, one thing that may provide benefit is getting a copy of my book, Thriving Beyond Fifty, and working through some of the tips and strategies in there for improving your general health and recovering from injury. You can read more about the book below:
Top Tip: Grab a copy of my #1 Best-Selling book, Thriving Beyond Fifty for more health, wellness and recovery strategies!
I hope you can now see exactly why the hamstring stretch is the top herniated disc exercise to avoid, and how replacing it with a nerve flossing exercise can dramatically help your symptoms.
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