As a lumbar spine specialist in New Jersey, one of the questions we’re most frequently asked is about whether exercise helps or hurts those who have a herniated disc, sciatica, or any other type of back pain. To fully understand the answer, you should start with a basic working knowledge of your spine.
The spine is made up of small bones called vertebrae, and between each vertebrae are discs that help to hold it together while at the same time acting as shock absorbers. Whether you’re engaging in a high-impact activity like running or jumping or something more low impact like walking or lifting, the discs are there to absorb the force.
Each disc looks like a donut that has a strong outer portion and a gel-like inner portion, and when a disc herniates, this gel (called a nucleus pulposus) bulges out. When this happens and the gel touches a nerve coming out of the spine, we experience pain. Which disc herniates is what determines how and where the pain is experienced, and when it’s a disc in the lumbar spine, we can feel the pain running down our leg. When you experience this type of nerve pain, it’s called lumbar radiculopathy and it can make regular activities like going to work or exercising absolutely excruciating.
The good news is that most people who go through this kind of pain do end up recovering completely. Research into the role of exercise has shown that it’s largely a question of what type of activity you’re interested in engaging in, as well as the obvious question as to whether or not it makes the pain feel better or worse. Several studies comparing people who treated their pain with bed rest and people who continued daily activities found no difference between the two groups either short term (2 weeks) or longer term (6 months). Other studies showed that those who stuck with bed rest to treat lumbar radiculopathy did not fare as well as those maintained normal activity.
The treatment approach that we provide as a lumbar spine specialist in New Jersey generally begins with a conservative approach that can include exercise. Yoga classes that focus on breathing and gentle stretching are recommended, though those that practice aggressive positions are discouraged. Lifting weights can put strain on your back, so if you plan on continuing this exercise it is a good idea to avoid dead lifting and to reduce the number of pounds that you lift. Walking has been found to be helpful, and is unlikely to worsen your symptoms, though many patients report that climbing stairs can be jarring and can aggravate back pain symptoms.
The most important advice that we can give you as a lumbar spine specialist in New Jersey is to listen to your body and respond appropriately. If something hurts it means that you should stop. There is no reason to rush things. If your pain does not go away in a few days, contact our office to set up an appointment to discuss what relief may be available.