Exercise and a Pinched Nerve: What to Do and What Not to Do

If you've been told you have a pinched nerve, first of all, ouch! And second, know this: The term covers a lot of ground, but in general, a pinched nerve occurs when a nerve is compressed and causes pain, numbness and a feeling of weakness in the affected limb.

Exercising with a pinched nerve may be painful and cause further damage to the nerve. (Image: mheim3011/iStock/GettyImages)

Keep in mind, too, that a pinched nerve can occur anywhere along your spine due to a bone spur or herniated disk, but may also occur in your arms or legs if nerves are compressed by a tendon or ligament.

"You may also feel pins and needles and burning that accompanies that feeling of muscle numbness and weakness," says Thomas Riolo, DO, assistant professor in the department of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at the New York Presbyterian Columbia Medical Center in New York City.

While a pinched nerve can happen at any point in life, due to trauma or injury, pinched nerves become a more common occurrence as we age. "Pinched nerves often derive from weakness in the walls of our discs," Dr. Riolo says. "When those walls lose strength, even a small trauma can lead to the center of the disc popping out and pushing onto a nerve."

Warning

If you experience sudden pain, weakness or numbness that does not resolve or lose bowel or bladder control, contact a healthcare provider immediately.

Don't work out if you have (or think you have) a pinched nerve as this may cause further damage. Failing to properly treat the injured nerve may lead to worsening of the condition and possibly even permanent damage.

Your doctor can give you the green light (or red light) for limited exercise and may even recommend certain strengthening moves or stretches depending on the severity and location of the pinched nerve.

Can You Work Out With a Pinched Nerve?

In general, working out with a pinched nerve isn't recommended. Pinched nerves can cause weakness, which makes lifting heavy objects, including weights at the gym, dangerous. It may also delay your recovery or even worsen the condition.

Other types of exercise can be just as damaging when you have a pinched nerve, including any impact sports and movements that require high intensity, sudden movements or repetitive motions.

However, you shouldn't be completely sedentary. Walking and gentle stretching, if done with the approval of your doctor, will help keep your body loose and speed your recovery. Be sure you're getting enough rest and strive to maintain good posture to help heal the nerve and prevent future issues.

"Since everyone is different, we all tolerate exercises differently," says Anthony Guanciale, MD, associate professor of orthopaedic surgery at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. "We guide patients to remain active and to omit only those exercises that clearly aggravate their symptoms. After all, the healthier we are, the more likely we can recover from disc disease with fewer long-term effects."

Pinched Nerve Treatment

To get an official diagnosis, your doctor will perform a physical exam and may order additional tests like an X-ray, MRI or CT scan.

In many cases, a pinched nerve can be treated with rest, over-the-counter pain medications or muscle relaxants and physical therapy. A soft collar may be recommended if the pinched nerve is in your neck. But in severe cases, more advanced treatments like steroid injections or surgery may be necessary.

Exercises for a Pinched Nerve

After getting your doctor's approval, there are some gentle stretches and exercises you can do that may help a pinched nerve by keeping the surrounding tissues and joints loose and strengthening the muscles to improve posture.

"Be gentle and take it very slow," Dr. Riolo says. "Certainly, any gentle exercises you can do to strengthen your core and glutes and keep your hamstrings loose will help." Here are the exercises he recommends.

Glute Bridges

  1. Lie on your back with your feet on the floor.
  2. Raise your hips off the floor and hold for five seconds.
  3. Slowly lower your back to the floor.
  4. Repeat 10 times.

How this helps: strengthens your glutes and core

Knee-to-Chest Stretch

  1. Take your knee and pull it to your chest.
  2. Rotate left to right, then hold for five seconds.
  3. Repeat 10 times.

How this helps: stretches out your back

Belly to Spine

  1. Start either lying down or sitting in a chair.
  2. Draw your belly button into your spine and suck in your gut.
  3. Hold for a few seconds.

How this helps: strengthens core

Pelvic Tilt

  1. Lie on the ground with your knees bent, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Rotate your pelvis so your lower back becomes as flat as possible on the floor.
  3. Hold for five seconds.
  4. Slowly release.

How this helps: strengthens the curve in your lower back

Leg Lifts

  1. Lie on your side and straighten out your top leg.
  2. Bring that leg up toward the ceiling and back again.
  3. Repeat five times.
  4. Switch sides.

How this helps: strengthens glutes

Ear-to-Shoulder Stretch

  • While looking straight ahead, gently dip your ear to your shoulder.

How this helps: Strengthens the neck muscles

Chin to Pocket

  1. Aim your chin toward your pants pocket and pull ever so slightly.
  2. Hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Repeat.

How this helps: stretches out neck muscles, especially tight ones

Chin Tucks

  1. Like forming a double chin, draw your chin back toward your neck.
  2. Hold for 5 seconds.
  3. Repeat 10 times.

How this helps: relieves pressure on the neck

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