A herniated disc occurs when the discs between your vertebrae tear and the inside of the disc bulges out, pressing on the surrounding nerves. Herniated discs can cause pain in the back and legs, and pain is usually aggravated by moving. A herniated disc may occur in any part of the spine, but is more common in the lumbar spine. Although severe cases may require surgery, chiropractic treatment and exercise should be pursued as initial treatment for a herniated disc.
Although pain from a herniated disc may be relieved by resting, extended bed rest may actually worsen the condition. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends gentle exercise to strengthen spinal muscles, improve core strength and improve posture, thereby reducing the pressure on your spinal discs. With proper treatment and precaution, most herniated discs heal within a few weeks.
The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends stretching exercises for a herniated disc to strengthen the spine and reduce pain. Suggested exercises include touching your toes while standing or sitting and lateral bending. After initial pain has subsided, swimming can increase blood flow to the injured area. Orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Franco Postacchini claims cycling may be beneficial within a month of herniated disc surgery. All exercise should be introduced gradually to avoid further injury.
There is much anecdotal evidence that yoga is an effective exercise system for healing a herniated disc. Many of the rehabilitative stretches listed by Dr. Postacchini in "Lumbar Disc Herniation" are also yoga poses. Yoga expert B.K.S. Iyengar recommends specific yoga poses for herniated discs in his book "Light on Yoga."
These yoga poses for herniated discs include forward folds such as Seated Forward Bend (paschimottanasana) and Standing Forward Bend (uttanasana), as well as back extensions such as Cobra Pose (bhujangasana), Locust Pose (salabasana), Camel Pose (ustrasana) and Bridge (setubandha sarvangasana). Iyengar also recommends inverted yoga poses for herniated discs, including Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana), Shoulder Stand (sarvangasana) and Forearm Stand (pincha mayurasana).
An article published by the International Association for the Study of Pain on the effects of Iyengar yoga on back pain claims that inverted yoga poses reverse the compression of intervertebral discs to relieve pressure on the nerves and reduce chronic back pain, but does not speak specifically to the effects of yoga on herniated discs.
The effectiveness of stretching exercises for a herniated disc may depend on the severity of your condition and other variables. Your health care provider may ask you to work with a physical therapist first to learn proper exercise technique. If you choose to pursue yoga to help heal a herniated disc, work one-on-one with a yoga instructor who has training in yoga therapy.
Although there is evidence for the benefits of stretching exercises for a herniated disc, there has been little scientific research specifically about the effectiveness of yoga for a herniated disc. If left untreated, a herniated disc may lead to chronic back pain and other complications. Even with treatment and proper exercise, complications from a herniated disc are possible.