Your spine is a column of bones called vertebrae and tough, cartilage-containing discs that cushion the spine. A thick, protective band that features a gel-like substance underneath it surrounds the discs. If the band surrounding the disc becomes cracked or broken, this gel substance can leak out of the disc and place pressure on the nearby nerves that run down the spinal cord. In a cervical disc herniation, this pressure involves the nine cervical vertebrae that make up the top of the spine, including at the neck. The result can be pain in the neck and shoulders and numbness or tingling in the hands and arms.
Cervical discs can herniate due to a sudden stressor, such as a neck injury, or after slow deterioration of the spinal column. Practicing poor posture, such as slumping over, or repeatedly performing twisting exercises also contributes to a cervical herniated disc. Because neck injuries can be serious and threaten spinal cord function, it is important to obtain a physician’s diagnosis before beginning exercises. Your physician will discuss your symptoms, take imaging scans and examine your neck to make a diagnosis. Discuss with him exercises you typically perform. He will likely recommend physical therapy exercises to reduce your pain and promote flexibility.
When you initially experience cervical herniated disc pain, your physician may recommend resting the neck for one to two days following a flare-up. You may be experiencing nerve spasms and pain that would make exercise difficult. During this time frame, applying ice and heat to the area can help you find relief. While it can be tempting to remain sedentary, exercise can help your neck muscles following a flare-up, eliminating stiffness that can contribute to neck pain. Performing gentle stretching exercises and cardiovascular exercises that do not cause sudden, jerking motions can help you to feel better in the days to weeks it takes for your neck pain to subside.
Exercises to Avoid
Certain exercises may place too much pressure on your neck, shoulders or arms. This includes lifting heavy weights, especially those you must lift overhead. Drop down to lower weights and more repetitions instead to reduce strain placed on the neck. Intense cardiovascular exercise, like sprinting or high-intensity aerobics, also may place too much strain on the spine, damaging herniated discs. Avoid these exercises to reduce your risk for further injury.
Exercises to Perform
Although you experience a herniated disc, you can participate in most exercises after your flare-up has subsided. These include walking, riding a bicycle and swimming. Couple these exercises with gentle stretching movements for the neck and shoulders. Looking from side to side, tilting the head to one side, then another and reaching your arms overhead can all help you maintain range of motion that reduces pain. Don’t forget to always practice good posture, pulling your shoulders slightly back and looking straight ahead.
- Mayfield: Herniated Cervical Disc
- Spine-Health: Conservative Treatment for a Cervical Herniated Disc; Dr. Richard Staehler; June 17, 2002
- FamilyDoctor.org: Herniated Disk: What It Is and What You Can Do
- Spine Universe: Exercise and Herniated Discs; Kelly Rehan; Dec. 10, 2009
- Princeton Brain & Spine Care: Cervical Disc Herniation Symptoms and Treatment