Herniated disc (or slipped disc) is a common injury and happens to people of varying ages. I personally know a couple of friends suffering from herniated disc, who experience physical discomfort at varying levels, and get very demoralized when it restricts them from participating in physical activities. This issue has always been close to my heart. As I embarked on my YTT journey, I was very interested when this topic floated up in anatomy class. I would like to take this chance to share a little more on how you can practise yoga with herniated disc, and hopefully address some of your concerns.
Questions, questions and more questions…
Many people with herniated disc, would love to return to their active lifestyle, whether it is to practise some type of sport, dance routines, or just leisure jog in the park. The first option that doctors or therapists usually recommend them to begin with is always – yoga. However, I am sure there are still many questions in your head: Is yoga really safe for people with herniated disc, or will it lead to further injury? What should I look out for? What are the poses I should avoid? What are the poses that would be good for me? We will address these questions as we go along.
What is a herniated disc?
A spinal disc consists of two parts – the nucleus (a gel-like center) and the annulus (a rubbery exterior). A herniated disc occurs when the nucleus is pushed out through a tear or rupture in the annulus, and can irritate the spinal nerves causing discomfort or pain.b
For the symptoms, it depends on which disc is affected. For example, if the lumbar disc is affected, one may experience pain to the lower back or down the legs, tingling sensation or numbness in the leg, and possibly difficulty standing up or walking. If the cervical disc is affected, the pain and discomfort may be felt in the neck or arms instead.
General guidelines to practise yoga with herniated disc
Here are some rules that you should follow, but do note that the list is not exhaustive:
- Get your doctor’s concurrence before starting any yoga practice
- Always warm up the body, and practise slowly
- Inform your yoga instructor on your injury before the start of the class
- Avoid forward bending poses (flexion of the spine)
- Keep the back neutral for such poses, and do not round the spine.
- Stop immediately if you experience any discomfort, pain or numbness
Yoga poses: Yay or Nay?
The “Nays”: You should avoid yoga poses that flex the spine, such as forward bending poses. In a forward bend, the vertebrae are compressed forward, which would cause the gel-like nucleus to get pushed towards the posterior of the body. This could cause the disc to herniate further, and put more pressure on the nerve leading to more severe pain and discomfort. Poses you should avoid include Uttanasana (Forward fold), Paschimottanasana (Seated forward fold), Marichyasana A/B and Sasangasana (Rabbit pose).
Modification: Some adjustments you could make if you would still like to practise a forward fold would be to: 1) bend your knees generously, 2) keep your spine straight. This would minimize the compression and protect your back. However do remember to stop whenever you feel any sharp pain, as you would know your body best.
The “Yays”: Poses that keep the spine neutral would be suitable for practice, as it would not put additional strain on the disc. Poses with a gentle back bend would be helpful to relieve the discomfort, as the vertebrae are slightly compressed causing the nucleus to move towards the anterior of the body, relieving the pressure away from the nerves. Bhujangasana (Cobra pose) would be a good pose to practise, or for a less intense version you could practise sphinx pose. Setu Bandhasana (Bridge pose) also allows for a gentle back bend and also it brings an additional benefit of producing a sense of relaxation and calmness as it is considered a gentle inversion.
Caution: A gentle backbend is good, however do note that an intense back bend could further aggravate the herniated disc and it may put too much direct pressure on the nerves. Hence, do ensure that you practise the yoga poses slowly and be aware of your limits.
Yoga is a great recovery practice for many different types of injury if practised properly. Always remember to treat your body with love and practise at your own comfortable pace.
Pei Qi, YTT 2021