You'd be hard-pressed to drive, have a conversation or just go about your day with a neck that is painful and stiff from a cervical disc herniation. In many cases, however, a few neck hernia exercises can help strengthen your muscles and relieve these potentially disabling symptoms.
Strengthening exercises for a herniated disc in the neck that work the muscles that surround the neck and cervical spine can help reduce the disability associated with this condition.
What’s a Cervical Disc Herniation?
Your cervical spine consists of the seven vertebrae bones that begin just under your skull and continue down to your upper back. In between these bones are cushion-like structures called discs that have a firmer exterior and a softer, jelly-like interior. Occasionally, the gelatinous interior of the disc (called the nucleus pulposis) pushes through or herniates out through a tear in the exterior.
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When this occurs, the nucleus pulposis can make contact with nerves along your spine, which may cause several different symptoms, according to Emory Healthcare. Among the most common is pain in your neck, which can radiate down to your shoulder, arm or hand.
A herniation can also lead to numbness or "electric shock like" tingling in these same areas caused by the contact the disc material makes with your nerve. Also, it's not uncommon to experience weakness in your arm muscles, making it difficult to lift the arm or use it to bathe or dress.
Cervical Herniated Disc Exercises
Contrary to what you may hear, the Cleveland Clinic reports that, in most cases, symptoms from a disc herniation resolve on their own with conservative measures and don't require more invasive treatments.
Simple measures, such as temporarily resting from irritating activities like working out, driving or using your arm to lift or carry, can be beneficial. Using a heat or ice pack and taking anti-inflammatory medication (if recommended by your doctor) may also help reduce the pain and tingling.
Read more: Neck & Muscle Pain After Exercise
Cervical herniated disc exercises can also be beneficial. These movements help strengthen the structures surrounding the neck and spine, improve your flexibility and help with the overall endurance of your muscles. They may also help decrease the pressure placed on the spinal nerves and reduce the symptoms that are shooting away from your neck and down your arm — called centralization.
Try a few simple exercises for a herniated disc in the neck to manage your symptoms:
1. Try a Supine Retraction
If your neck has a disc issue, it can be challenging even to sit upright due to pain, numbness or tingling down the arm. The supine retraction technique makes it more tolerable to strengthen the deeper muscles in your neck. This movement is easy to perform and requires no equipment.
- Lie on your back with your head resting in a neutral position on the ground and your knees bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Place two fingers on your chin and lightly press downwards as you tuck your chin towards your spine. Visualize giving yourself a double chin. The back of your head should remain in contact with the ground at all times.
- When you feel the muscles in the back of your head near the base of your skull working, hold the position for five to 10 seconds before relaxing. Complete eight to 10 repetitions of the retractions each day.
2. Attempt Some Isometrics
Another easier, beginner workout that may help relieve the symptoms of a herniated disc is isometric training. This technique allows you to lightly turn on the muscles that surround the spine in your neck without overly-aggravating symptoms. Try this exercise:
- Sit in a chair with your back supported and your neck held in a neutral position.
- Begin by putting your palm on your forehead and pushing gently against it as though you were trying to look towards your stomach, but your hand was stopping the movement. Keep your resistance light enough to avoid pain.
- Hold this contraction for 10 seconds before relaxing and then repeat the movement three times.
- After this, do the same type of push with your palm on the back of your head like you are trying to look up and on each side of your head as though you are trying to side bend at the neck.
3. Do Your Chin Tucks
Once your symptoms begin to subside, you can perform another of the cervical herniated disc exercises from a sitting position. The versatile chin tuck technique helps strengthen your neck muscles and can be done anytime, anywhere.
- Sit in a chair with your spine against the back of it and your feet resting on the ground.
- Place a finger up against your chin and retract your chin away from it without nodding your head or leaning backward. Look straight ahead as you perform the movement. Again, the tuck should cause you to get a double chin.
- Hold the retracted position for a second or two before returning to a neutral neck. Repeat eight to 10 reps of the tucks and do this three to four times per day. If you are doing the technique correctly, you should feel it in the back of your neck and along each side of your throat.
4. Get on Your Stomach
Once you can successfully complete the other exercises for a herniated disc in the neck, you can try some prone cervical retraction. This is one of the more advanced versions of the neck hernia exercises that challenge the muscles in the neck and upper back (scapular) area.
According to an August 2016 review published in Manual Therapy, including exercises that target these regions in a workout regimen may help relieve pain and improving function. Try this simple movement:
- Lie on your stomach with your neck in a neutral position and your eyes facing straight down towards the ground.
- Without allowing your chest to rise from the table, lift your head straight up in the air as you retract your chin. Try to keep your low back and buttocks relaxed as you do this to avoid compensation.
- Hold the position against gravity for 10 seconds and complete 10 repetitions each day.
Herniated Disk Symptoms That Persist
Conservative measures are typically successful in relieving the pain and disability associated with this condition. However, this is not always the case. If your symptoms persist, it's important to talk with your doctor. He may recommend additional tests to determine the root cause of your problem.
Further imaging like an MRI, an X-Ray, a CT scan or an electromyogram (EMG) may be needed. This testing could also indicate that a more invasive treatment like a spinal injection or a cervical surgery (a laminectomy or a microdiscectomy) may be indicated.
Read more: Gym Exercises You Can Do With a Slipped Disc
If you experience pain, numbness or tingling that continues to progress or have diminished strength in your shoulder, arm, hands or fingers, it's critical to seek medical attention right away. Sometimes, neck hernia exercises may not be enough to address this condition, and failure to properly treat the issue may lead to more serious problems down the road. The sooner you get treatment, the lower the risk of complications.
- Mayo Clinic: “Herniated Disc”
- Emory Healthcare: “Cervical Herniated Disc”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Herniated Disc: Management and Treatment”
- North American Spine Society: “Cervical Exercises: The Backbone of Spine Treatment”
- Manual Therapy: "Exercises for Mechanical Neck Disorders: A Cochrane Review Update"