Degenerative Disk Disease & Yoga

Back pain
The American College of Physicians now recommends yoga for back pain caused by degenerative disc problems. (Image: h3photography/iStock/Getty Images)

If you'd rather do yoga for degenerative disc disease than have spinal surgery or take heavy narcotics, you're in luck. Needless to say, yoga's benefits for serious spinal problems have been known to practitioners for centuries. But now mainstream medicine is taking the clue. In February of 2017, the American College of Physicians (ACP) released new treatment guidelines for lower back pain. They not only recommend non-invasive treatments such as tai chi and acupuncture, but also specify yoga as a potential treatment strategy.

Of course, if you're asking the question, then you probably know that the upper and lower regions of the spine are equipped with intervertebral discs to absorb shock, lend flexibility and protect the spinal cord. Unfortunately, decay and injury can cause these discs to fray and lose the water that gives them their spongy quality, causing bone spurs and other problems that can cause pain and affect mobility. Yoga can help by building the muscle sheath that surrounds the spine and creating space between the vertebrae.

Getting Started

The ACP's guidelines stop short of recommending specific poses and to be sure, there's no blanket yogic prescription for degenerating discs. It's also important to proceed with caution. If you've been diagnosed with degenerative disc disease or believe you may have it, you should ask your orthopedist or physical therapist which yoga poses may be beneficial and which to avoid (forward folds, for example, can cause problems for people with disc disease).

You should also be sure to alert your yoga instructor about your condition. It's definitely important to start out slowly with gentler forms of yoga, such as a beginner level Hatha or Iyengar class that emphasizes gradual stretching and slower, deliberate movements. More aggressive styles like Ashtanga or Power Yoga could put you at risk of injury.

Stretching Hamstrings Safely

Tight hamstrings are a huge contributing factor to disc derangement and cause the pelvis to tip backward. Unfortunately, the fastest way to looser hamstrings -- forward folds -- can make things worse for people with disc problems, particularly if the curve in your lower back has flattened. That's because touching your toes flexes the lower back, causing its normal curve to flatten out even more, which puts the front part of the discs under more pressure. That causes the discs squishy centers to get shoved backward into the supporting ligaments.

Therefore, a less direct approach to stretching the hamstrings is advisable. In lieu of forward-fold stretches, consider doing the Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe pose in which you stretch each leg individually using a belt while lying on your back. Other less direct measures include Wide-Legged Forward Bend (the wide stance takes pressure of the discs), the Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe pose(normally a challenge, but not so much if you do it with your raised leg on the back of a chair) and the Reclining Bound Angle Pose, but with your pelvis and feet against a wall, applying gentle pressure to your thighs.

And if you're like most people who'll jump at the chance to do Corpse pose, here's your excuse -- but modify it by elevating your legs with your knees bent and your calves supported on a chair.

Portrait of attractive cheerful young woman working out indoors. Beautiful model doing exercises in room with white walls. Warrior II posture, Virabhadrasana Two pose
B.K.S. Iyengar favored standing poses for lower back pain. (Image: fizkes/iStock/Getty Images)

Standing Poses

The great yogi B.K.S. Iyengar believed standing poses to be the key to recovering from lower back pain. It is, however, a bit of challenge to maintain proper form when you're starting out, and a 2014 study in the International Journal of Yoga counseled that people with LBP ease into the more difficult poses.

The foundational Mountain pose is a great place to start, and also good is Warrior II pose -- but modify it by standing with your back against a counter top or ledge, with your hands pressed down on it for support. And there is nothing like Child's pose to sooth the savage back, but using a bolster to support your trunk.

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