Safe Back Stretching for Collapsed Discs
Collapsed discs are frequently dealt with surgically, but if you're looking for a more natural and less invasive way to deal with the problem, stretching and strengthening the back muscles may reduce pain and restore mobility.
In fact, the American College of Physicians' most recently guidelines for back pain urge a conservative approach to disc and other back problems, specifically recommending stretching and yoga. However, not all stretches or exercises may be good for a degenerative disc condition, and some may make the problem worse. Before embarking on a stretching program, it's important to first consult with your doctor or physical therapist.
Understanding Collapsed Discs
As you probably know if you're reading this, the upper and lower sections of the spine are equipped with a set of spongy intervertebral discs that serve as natural shock absorbers. Wear and tear, injury and age can take their toll on these discs, causing various kinds of damage known as degenerative disc disease. A "collapsed" disc is the result of small tears in the discs fibrous exterior that allows the gelatinous core to leak out, causing loss of water content and ultimately the flattening of the disc itself. The result is decreased disc height that may lead to bone to rubbing against bone, irritated nerve endings, bone spurs and, of course, pain.
Best Stretches for Hamstrings
Overly tight hamstrings contribute to many a disc problem by pulling the pelvis out of alignment and the rest of the spine along with it. However, one of the first lines of attack for taut hamstrings — folding forward from the waist with your feet together forward folds — may be better avoided because they may cause the disc to protrude into the spinal canal. Instead, try a classic yoga pose called Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe pose. Lying on your back, raise one leg at a time while hooking a belt around your foot to help pull the leg back without putting strain on your lower back. Another good passive hamstring stretch, also a yoga pose, is the Wide-Legged Forward Bend — striking as wide a stance as you can comfortably assume, fold your body forward, bringing your head as close to the floor as it will go.
Side Plank, a yoga pose, strengthens the lateral torso muscles, necessary for optimal back stabilization.
Stretching for Strength and Stability
When it comes to back health, stability is actually more important than mobility. Gentle repetitions are key as endurance is more important than strength for back muscles. The following strength and stretching exercises will help stabilize the spine, but keep in mind that there's no one-size-fits-all exercise program for back problems, especially when discs are involved.
Combining Cat and Cow poses into a motion exercise — as opposed to stretches — for five to eight cycles reduces internal disc friction and stress. Bird Dog pose is a great back stabilizer that elongates the back lengthwise while particularly activating the erector spinae and pelvic floor muscles. Avoid holding the position longer than 7 to 8 seconds, though, to prevent torso muscles from going into spasm; increased repetitions are more beneficial than longer hold times. Then, you can activate the torso's lateral muscles — important for optimal stability — with Side Plank pose.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Degenerative Disc Disease
- ACP: American College of Physicians issues guideline for treating nonradicular low back pain
- Yoga Journal: Yoga for Back Pain
- American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. OrthoInfo. Low back pain. Reviewed December 2013.
- Arthritis Foundation. Osteoarthritis.
- Columbia University Department of Neurological Surgery. Spondylosis.
Martin Booe is a health, fitness and wellness writer who lives in Los Angeles. He is currently collaborating on a book about digital addiction to be published in the UK this December.