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What to do About Stiffness One Year after Disc Herniation

What to do About Stiffness One Year after Disc Herniation

Dr. Michael Derry, DPT, PT, OCS Jacksonville, Florida
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My clients often report back stiffness a year after a disc herniation. While their nerve pain or sciatica is often better they still report a lingering stiffness or achiness in their back.

We know that most disc herniations improve over time with conservative care. That is the actually disc if we look at it using an MRI, has reduced in size. That doesn't mean that back stiffness is magically better. This can leave people feeling worried and afraid of movement because they do not want to injure their back or have another herniation.

However, the best way to get your back feeling better is to actually do mobility work. Improving back stiffness should be the focus after disc herniation. Let's talk about this more.

What Should I Know About Disc Herniation?

When we talk about a "disc" we are talking about the space between the vertebral body in our spine. This disc controls movement of our spine such as flexion, extension, and rotation. It is a static structure that provides strength and mobility. When this disc is "herniated" that means the material gets close to a nerve and can send pain down the leg. This is when we see a lot of people coming in and asking for help because it is very painful! It's often called sciatica.

There are several things that I always tell my clients about disc herniation. The first being that disc herniations happen over time, to a lot of people.

It's not uncommon to have a herniation in your 30s and not even know it! 

The only time we begin to notice that something is wrong is when it begins to involve the nerves in our back. That is when most people begin to feel the most pain and seek out help.

Disc herniations happen over time, to a lot of people. That doesn't mean everyone has pain! 

Another important fact about disc herniations is that it can be re-absorbed over time. Yes, it can go away on its own! You can look at an MRI of someone who has an active herniated disc and see the herniation in the image, then come back some time later and do another MRI and the herniation could be gone. However, just because there is not an active disc herniation happening, does not mean that the person will not feel the affects of the prior disc herniation. These people could still be experiencing stiffness, weakness, and mobility deficits.

Disc herniation can be re-absorbed over time! Our bodies are amazing! 
Disc Herniation
Disc Herniation

What You Can Do if You Have a Herniated Disc That Still Hurts After a Year?

Movement and mobility exercises ae key for people who are still struggling with disc pain a year later.

Motion is lotion for your body! I have noticed that my clients who have stayed consistent in doing mobility exercises after having a herniated disc, have better outcomes than those who decide to just sit and rest their back.

3 habits that I have seen my clients benefit from include nerve glides, mobility exercises, and strengthening.

  1. Nerve glides
  2. Reduce time sitting
  3. Morning and evening stretching routine

If your herniated disc still hurts after a year, it may not be the herniated disc! You may be experiencing lingering affects of the herniation such as stiffness, weakness, and mobility deficits. The best thing you can do for your body is move! There are 2 exercises that I always encourage my clients to do who have had a herniated disc in the past that have helped them tremendously. Let's get into it.

2 Exercises to Improve Back Stiffness During and After a Disc Herniation


These 2 exercises are probably something that you have seen or at least heard of before. But trust me, if you listen to my advice and just try them again, you will likely see some improvement in your back stiffness from your disc herniation. The relief comes from quality of movement not just rushing through the exercise.

I do not want you to push yourself, just listen to your body as you go! 

If you do not feel better after the movements, you likely did too much too fast, or you did not listen to your body.

To start, lay down on the ground or a yoga mat and take your shoes off. This will be the easiest way to begin!

Prone Press

Prone Press Exercise
Prone Press Exercise
Prone Press
Prone Press Exercise

With this exercise, you will start on your belly. Press up with your arms until you feel a mild pressure in your lower back. This is the time when you need to listen to your body! If you are feeling pain in your legs, hamstring, or calf you have gone too far. Repetitive motion is lotion for your spine! Do this for about 15 to 20 reps and you will feel some relief from your back stiffness.

Downward Dog with Nerve Glides

Downward Dog
Downward Dog

You are going to get on your hands and knees and then move into a downward dog position. Then begin pedaling your feet. It is normal to feel some tension in your calfs during this movement. Pedal your feet about 15 to 20 times and then take a break. Go back up and do it all over again. 3 sets of this movement will help your back stiffness in no time!

Like I said before, clients of mine who have stayed consistent in doing these 2 movements noticed improvements in their back stiffness and were able to feel better, do more, have more range of motion in their spine, and enjoy their day better! All you have to do is try it - listen to your body and stay consistent and you will feel better in no time!

In conclusion, struggling with post-disc herniation stiffness is normal but their it can get better. Targeted mobility exercises plus consistency often does the trick.


Chiu CC, Chuang TY, Chang KH, Wu CH, Lin PW, Hsu WY. The probability of spontaneous regression of lumbar herniated disc: a systematic review. Clin Rehabil. 2015 Feb;29(2):184-95. doi: 10.1177/0269215514540919. Epub 2014 Jul 9. PMID: 25009200.

Dr. Michael Derry is a Doctor of Physical Therapy and board certified in orthopedics. He is very passionate about treating lower back pain and helping people build their resiliency. He has spent time assisting at universities as well as managing large clinics before starting his own practice in Jacksonville, FL.

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