The discs in your spine are made up of the inner, gelatinous nucleus pulposus and the outer annulus fibrosus. This outer ring is a firm, ligament that encloses the spongey nucleus and prevents it from herniating or bulging beyond its normal perimeter, according to Jack Zigler, M.D. on the Spine-health website. The annulus also disperses the pressure on the vertebrae caused by weight-bearing activities. If the annular fibers stretch or tear, the nucleus can herniate, which may lead to back pain and sciatica. Stretching and strengthening exercises can help relieve these conditions.
Your discs naturally deteriorate as you age, especially in the lumbar region of your spine, which bears the most weight. According to the Mayfield Clinic, a major factor of degeneration is dehydration. The disc nucleus, which is largely made up of water, dries out over time. This causes the spaces between your discs to shrink and places increased pressure on the annulus. Tears can also form in the annulus, through which the nucleus can herniate and press on the nerve fibers in your spine.
Strengthening the muscles that support your spine will help you maintain good posture and movement and, therefore, relieve pressure on your discs and vertebrae, according to the Mayfield Clinic. To target your abdominals, lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Gently press your lower back into the floor and curl up until your shoulders are just off the floor. Hold for up to 10 seconds, lower and repeat 10 times. To strengthen your back muscles, lie on your stomach with your arms down by your sides and your legs straight. Tighten your buttocks and lift your shoulders and chest off the floor, hold for about 10 seconds, lower and repeat 10 times. Keep looking down at the floor throughout this exercise.
Gentle stretches can ease back pain by relaxing the muscles and taking pressure off the spine, says J. Daul, M.P.T., on the Spine-health website. Stretch slowly and stop immediately if you feel any pain. A common cause of back pain is tension in the piriformis muscle, which runs from the base of your spine down your thigh. To stretch this muscle, lie on your back and cross one leg over the other, keeping both knees bent. Clasp your hands behind the knee of the lower leg and slowly draw both thighs in towards your chest. Pull your legs in as far as you can without causing pain and hold for about 30 seconds. You will feel a stretch through your buttocks and outer hips.
Low-impact aerobic exercise is not only essential for all-round fitness, but also for spine health because it promotes good circulation to ensure your spine receives a steady supply of nutrient-rich blood. TheMayfield Clinic recommends doing some form of cardiovascular exercise three to four times a week. Start with a 20-minute workout and gradually increase the time as your fitness improves. Swimming, brisk walking and stationary cycling are spine-friendly aerobic activities because they don't place a great deal of pressure on your back, according to Peter F. Ullrich Jr., M.D., on the Spine-health website. As well as improving circulation and helping to control your weight, Ullrich says the increased endorphins produced by 30 or 40 minutes of cardio activity can help ease back pain.
- Spine-health: Pain Generated by the Spinal Disc; by Jack Zigler, M.D.
- Mayfield Clinic: Degenerative Disc Disease (Spondylosis)
- Mayfield Clinic: Exercise for a Healthy Back
- Spine-health: Easy Exercise Program for Low Back Pain Relief; Robert J. Daul, M.P.T.
- Spine-health: Low-impact Aerobic Exercise; Peter F. Ullrich Jr., M.D.