Therapeutic exercises to treat aging-related degeneration of a lumbar disc focus on relieving the deep ache in the lower back and reducing sciatic leg pain caused by compressed spinal nerves.

Low back pain from lumbar degenerative disc disease is usually the result of inflammation or abnormal micro-motion instability. Watch: Lumbar Degenerative Disc Disease Video

Exercises to relieve lumbar degenerative disc disease pain aim to:

  • Strengthen the deep muscles of the spine and reduce spinal instability caused by the reduced disc space 1 Paul CPL, Emanuel KS, Kingma I, et al. Changes in Intervertebral Disk Mechanical Behavior During Early Degeneration. Journal of Biomechanical Engineering. 2018;140(9):91008. doi:10.1115/1.4039890 , 2 Kim S, Kim H, Chung J. Effects of Spinal Stabilization Exercise on the Cross-sectional Areas of the Lumbar Multifidus and Psoas Major Muscles, Pain Intensity, and Lumbar Muscle Strength of Patients with Degenerative Disc Disease. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014;26(4):579–582. doi:10.1589/jpts.26.579
  • Relieve nerve root compression due to degenerative changes, such as osteophytes (bone spurs) 3 Saleem S, Aslam HM, Rehmani MA, Raees A, Alvi AA, Ashraf J. Lumbar disc degenerative disease: disc degeneration symptoms and magnetic resonance image findings. Asian Spine J. 2013;7(4):322–334. doi:10.4184/asj.2013.7.4.322
  • Improve posture through specific stretching techniques in the lower back and legs

Structures in the lumbar, abdominal, pelvic, and thigh regions are worked on as a group to build overall strength and endurance.

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Sciatica Exercises for Degenerative Disc Disease

Sciatica from degenerative disc disease is commonly treated using exercises from a dynamic lumbar stabilization program. Exercises from these programs include finding the most comfortable position for the lumbar spine and pelvis and training the body to maintain this position during daily activities. Doing so can:

  • Improve the proprioception (sense of movement) of the lumbar spine
  • Strengthen the lower back muscles to reduce excess motion at a spinal segment

The exercises help stabilize the lumbar spine by working out the core muscles and preventing further loss of muscle mass. Excessive movement between adjacent vertebral segments is also reduced, decreasing the amount of irritation at the vertebral segment, relieving pain, and protecting the area from further damage.

Dynamic lumbar stabilization exercises are usually recommended to alleviate sciatica pain from degenerative disc disease. Watch: Sciatica Exercises for Degenerative Disc Disease Video

Exercises to Strengthen the Lower Back Muscles

The following exercises target the lower back—strengthening the superficial and deep muscles of the lumbar spine.

Prone leg lifts

Woman performing prone leg raise

Start by lying flat on the stomach.

  • Tuck both hands tucked to the side of the body.
  • Raise one leg upward with the knee slightly bent and without arching the back or neck.

Hold for 4 to 6 seconds and slowly lower to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg. Aim to complete 4 to 6 repetitions of this exercise.

Prone arm and leg lifts

Start by lying flat on the stomach.

  • With the elbows straight, stretch both arms above the head.
  • Raise one arm and the opposite leg 2 to 3 inches off the floor.

Hold for 4 to 6 seconds and slowly lower to the starting position. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg. Aim to complete 4 to 6 repetitions of this exercise.

4-point leg lifts

Start in a 4-point position, with hands and knees on the floor.

  • Position the hands directly under shoulders and knees directly under hips.
  • Look down at the floor without bending the neck.
  • Raise one leg behind with the knee slightly bent. Do not arch the back or neck.

Hold for 4 to 6 seconds and slowly lower to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg. Aim to complete 4 to 6 repetitions of this exercise.

Bird dog exercise

Woman on a yoga mat performing bird dog exercise

Start in a 4-point position similar to the previous exercise.

  • Raise one leg with the knee slightly bent.
  • Simultaneously, raise the opposite arm. Do not arch in the back or neck.

Hold for 4 to 6 seconds and slowly lower to the starting position. Aim to complete 4 to 6 repetitions of this exercise.

See Back Strengthening Exercises

As strength builds, aim to complete 10 leg (and arm) raises for each type of exercise twice daily. For exercises involving arm and leg lifts, raise the arms and legs only as high as can be controlled and is comfortable.

See Strengthening Exercise Program for Low Back Pain Relief

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Exercises to Strengthen the Abdominal Muscles

Examples of exercises that build strength in the abdominal muscles to develop a stronger and more stabilized core are discussed below.

Hook-lying march

Woman lying on her back outdoors performing a hook lying march

Start by lying on the back.

  • Tucked both arms to the side and hold a pelvic tilt.
  • Slowly raise alternate legs 3 to 4 inches from the floor (similar to a marching motion).

Aim to march for 30 seconds. Repeat for 1 or 2 more sets, with 30-second breaks in between repetitions.

For an advanced variation of this exercise, raise and lower the opposite arm over the head while marching.

Bridge

Woman lying on her back outdoors performing bridge

Start by lying on the back

  • Bend both knees bent and tuck the arms at the side.
  • Slowly raise the buttocks from the floor. Aim to align the back in a straight line from the shoulder to the pelvis.

Hold the bridge for 8 to 10 seconds and slowly lower to the starting position. As strength builds, aim to complete 2 sets of 10 bridges.

These exercises must be performed with a rigid trunk, without bending or sagging the spine.

Read more about Abdominal Exercises

If pain or discomfort is felt at any point while performing these exercises, it is recommended to stop and seek medical attention. It is helpful to learn these exercises from a trained medical professional to follow the correct technique and tailor the intensity or technique to suit individual needs.

View Slideshow: 9 Exercises for Sciatica Pain Relief

Ron Miller is a licensed physical therapist with more than 20 years of experience specializing in spine care. He helped develop the physical therapy department at the NeuroSpine Center of Wisconsin, where he focuses on manual therapy, spinal stabilization, and therapeutic exercises.

  • 1 Paul CPL, Emanuel KS, Kingma I, et al. Changes in Intervertebral Disk Mechanical Behavior During Early Degeneration. Journal of Biomechanical Engineering. 2018;140(9):91008. doi:10.1115/1.4039890
  • 2 Kim S, Kim H, Chung J. Effects of Spinal Stabilization Exercise on the Cross-sectional Areas of the Lumbar Multifidus and Psoas Major Muscles, Pain Intensity, and Lumbar Muscle Strength of Patients with Degenerative Disc Disease. J Phys Ther Sci. 2014;26(4):579–582. doi:10.1589/jpts.26.579
  • 3 Saleem S, Aslam HM, Rehmani MA, Raees A, Alvi AA, Ashraf J. Lumbar disc degenerative disease: disc degeneration symptoms and magnetic resonance image findings. Asian Spine J. 2013;7(4):322–334. doi:10.4184/asj.2013.7.4.322

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