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Neck Exercises for a Herniated Disk

Herniated disk, bulging disk, slipped disk: Whatever you want to call it, this condition is extremely painful.

Herniated disks are most common in early to middle-aged adults and are often caused when too much pressure is put on an otherwise healthy spine. The spine is composed of many bony vertebrae, separated by jelly-like disks.

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Herniated Disc

These disks cushion the joints during impact, allow for movement in the spine, and keep the vertebrae in place. A herniated disk occurs when a disk ruptures, causing the disk to leak, which irritates surrounding nerves. A herniated disk often occurs with lifting, pulling, bending, or twisting movements. Bad posture and poor ergonomics may also contribute to its likelihood.

When the herniated disk affects the nerves in a specific area of the spine, it can cause pain and weakness in the area of the body that that nerve serves.

Cervical Radiculopathy

If a disk herniates in the neck or upper spine, it can cause pain to radiate down the shoulder, arm, or hand. This pain is called cervical radiculopathy, more commonly referred to as a pinched nerve.

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The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons notes that cervical radiculopathy may result in feelings of burning, tingling, and weakness in the arm, shoulder, or hand. In severe cases, it may also result in loss of feeling and paralysis.

Treatment

There are several treatment approaches for a herniated disk. Most doctors will recommend pain medication, rest, physical therapy, and other conservative treatments before consideration for surgery.

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The following exercises may improve your neck pain from your herniated disk faster. The goal of these exercises is to push the disk back, away from the nerve root. Always be evaluated by your doctor before attempting exercise at home.

Neck Exercises to Relieve Pain

Dr. Jose Guevara from Regional Medical Group in Atlanta recommends these exercises to relieve your neck pain.

1. Neck Extension

Lie on your back on a table or bed with the bottom of your neck in line with the edge. Slowly and gently lower your head backward and let it hang. If this makes your pain worse, or sends pain down your arm, do not continue. Hold this position for 1 minute, rest 1 minute, and repeat 5 to 15 times.

2. Neck Extension (Head Lift)

Lie on your stomach on a table or bed with your arms by your side and head hanging off the bed. Slowly and gently raise your head up, extending your neck against gravity. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds, repeat 15 to 20 times.

3. Neck Retraction (Chin Tuck)

Lie on your back with your head on the bed and hands by your side. Tuck your chin in towards your chest, making a double chin. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds, repeat 15 to 20 times.

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4. Shoulder Retraction

Sit or stand against a wall with your arms by your side. Bend your elbows to 90 degrees. Bring your shoulders down and back and push the back of your arms towards the wall, squeezing your shoulder blades together.

5. Isometric Hold

Sit up tall, relax your shoulders, and put your hand on your forehead. Press your head into your hand without moving your head. Hold this for 5 to 15 seconds, repeat 15 times.  

Neck Stretches to Relieve Pain

Stretching may benefit those with a bulging or herniated disk if they have tight muscles surrounding the area causing pain. Sometimes, stretching can make the pain worse and slow the healing process. Always stop any stretch if pain increases or radiates away from the spine.

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For example, if a stretch causes a shooting pain down your shoulder and arm, don’t perform the stretch. The goal of stretching is to localize the pain, not increase it.

1. Lateral Bend

Sit up tall and relax your shoulders. Slowly tilt your head to one side as if you are going to touch your ear to your shoulder. Hold this position for 30 seconds, rest, and repeat 3 to 5 times throughout the day.

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2. Scalene Stretch

Sit up tall, relax your shoulders, and place one hand on the back of your head. Slowly and gently tilt your head to look into your armpit at a 45-degree angle. Hold this position for 30 seconds, rest, and repeat 3 to 5 times throughout the day.

3. Neck Rotation

Sit up tall, relax your shoulders, and gently turn your head to the side. Don’t overrotate your head behind you, and avoid twisting your neck. Slowly turn your head to the other side. Hold each position for 30 seconds, and repeat 3 to 5 times throughout the day.

Exercises to Avoid

Dr. Seth Neubardt, a board-certified cervical spine surgeon, recommends avoiding any high-impact exercises while your herniated disk is healing. Exercises like running, jumping, powerlifting, or anything that involves sudden sharp movements, can greatly increase your pain, slow down healing, and may even cause lifelong problems.

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It’s still possible to participate in many of your usual activities. It’s important to modify challenging activities and keep your neck in a pain-free position. Gentle exercise is beneficial to the healing process as it encourages increased blood flow to the spine, decreases stress, and maintains strength.

The Takeaway

A study published in the British Medical Journal looked at the effectiveness of active treatment (physical therapy and home-based exercise) and passive treatment (cervical collar and rest) for cervical radiculopathy vs. a “wait and see” approach.

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Both the active and passive treatment had a significant positive impact on pain and disability at the six-week follow-up, versus those who didn’t receive any treatment at all. This high-quality randomized control trial leaves little doubt that exercise helps heal cervical radiculopathy faster than waiting it out.

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