The Best Exercises for a Pinched Nerve in the Neck or Lower Back

Speed up your recovery from a pinched nerve in the neck or lower back with these exercises.

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If you’ve ever had a pinched nerve in your lower back or neck—ugh, the agony. Pinched nerves are the laymen’s term for nerve compression that can trigger symptoms much farther away from the site of the pinch.

People doing tai chi exercise for pinched nerve in the neckIt may seem counterintuitive, but keep moving if you have a pinched nerve in the neck or lower back.

With cervical radiculopathy, you may feel pain, tingling, and numbness or weakness in your arms and hands. With lumbar, those same symptoms can appear in your back, butt, or upper legs. Hello, sciatica.

“Many people feel pinched nerve symptoms for just a day or two before they quickly resolve, but if they’re long-lasting and severely impact your days, you’d be wise to get checked by a doctor,” says Kaliq Chang, MDan interventional pain management specialist board-certified in anesthesiology at Atlantic Spine Center

Some factors that put you at higher risk of pinching a nerve include:

  • Obesity
  • Pregnancy
  • Diabetes
  • Family history
  • Repetitive motion
  • Injury
  • Poor posture
  • Lifting or twisting wrong
  • Keeping your body in a certain position for a long time

“Most patients need only rest, temporarily avoiding any activities that worsen symptoms,” Dr. Chang says. If it doesn’t exacerbate your pain, exercise may also be a way to find some relief.

Get Stronger

If your doctor clears you and you’re feeling up to it, add some resistance training to your schedule a few times a week. “Anything that helps to strengthen the muscles around a pinched nerve can help to relieve the pressure against that nerve,” says Siddharth Tambar, MD, a board-certified rheumatologist with Chicago Arthritis and Regenerative Medicine. “So, for example, if you have a pinched nerve in the lower back, strengthening the muscles of the lower back, abdominals, and hips will help reduce compression of that pinched nerve.”

Un-pinch Your Nerve with Walking

“Exercise as a first-line option for a pinched nerve should always be recommended. It’s low risk, something you can do on your own to improve your situation, and it’s part of the long-term solution,” says Dr. Tambar.

If walking feels like it’s doing your pinched nerve in the back some good, go ahead and move by walking slowly and seeing how it feels. “Walking is always good to allow hydration of the intervertebral discs in the spine, but not so much that it aggravates the pain,” says Dr. Chang. “Walking in a pool is even better due to the anti-gravity effect.”

The Best Yoga Poses for Lumbar or Cervical Radiculopathy

Dr. Chang says stretches and yoga are good for maintaining flexibility and core strengthening, but in an acute flare-up of pinched nerve or back pain, resting is a priority to avoid aggravation. If you do try some gentle yoga for the back, moves like the child’s pose stretch can provide effective relief and is a basic resting position in yoga.

Pinched nerve exercises best yoga posesThese gentle yoga poses can help a pinched nerve in the neck or lower back.

  • Child’s Pose: On hands and knees, spread knees wide but keep big toes touching. Rest your butt on your heels. Sit up straight, lengthening your spine. Bow forward pressing your torso into your thighs. Allow forehead to rest on floor, stretch arms long, and extend them in front of you, palms down. Exhale deeply. Don’t strain or stretch deeper than is comfortable and modify if needed.
  • Downward Facing Dog: The downward facing dog position may provide relief from sciatica.  On all fours, spread palms wide and stack shoulders over wrists. Knees are hip distance apart. Walk palms out in front of shoulders, keeping palms flat. Raise the body up and back raising knees off the mat, lifting hips as legs straighten. Keep knees bent slightly. Modify if necessary. Inhale and exhale deeply several times.
  • Cat/Cow Pose: This yoga move may help stretch, relax, and release pinched nerves in the neck and lower back. Begin with hands and knees on floor, knees under hips, wrists under shoulders. Back is flat like a table. Breathe in and on exhale round your spine up toward ceiling while tucking chin toward chest and releasing neck. This is cat. On inhale, arch your back, while releasing tummy, lift head and tailbone toward the sky. This is cow. Continue gently flowing between cat and cow pose up to five times.

Hit the Water

Gentle swimming or movement in the water may help both neck and back pinched nerves loosen a bit.  Dr. Tambar says, there isn’t one best activity for a pinched nerve. “It really depends on the individual person, how bad is the pinched nerve, and what activities they can tolerate.”

Dr. Tambar generally recommends doing exercises that strengthen the muscles without exacerbating the pain and symptoms of a pinched nerve. “So, for example, if walking is uncomfortable for your lower back, but swimming feels good, then focus on swimming and aquatic exercises,” he says. Movement in water can also feel relaxing and soothing.

Try Tai Chi

Tai chi is a gentle flowing exercise that works for strengthening, flexibility, and balance.  Tai chi may be right for both neck and back nerve compressions as its gentle rounded movements can alleviate pain and open joints. Based in Chinese medicine, tai chi combines meditation, breathing, and movement with stretching.

People doing tai chi exercises for pinched nerve in neck and lower backTai chi combines meditation, breathing, movement, and stretching.

A study in the journal Medicine found tai chi significantly improved lower back pain.Tai chi is a great activity for spine stability and core strength as the movements are slow and deliberate,” says Dr. Chang.

The best way to speed up healing a pinched nerve is to stop or limit activities that aggravate the pain (compromising positions, heavy lifting, twisting) and perform the activities that help the pain and improve spine flexibility and core strength.

“For the vast majority of people with pinched nerves, this is a short-term bother,” says Dr. Chang. Exercises that make you more comfortable, rest, and time will typically take care of it.

Updated on: 07/20/21
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