Countless articles on google and many videos on youtube talk about how you should be careful from deadlifting so that you don’t cause a disc herniation. 

There is no conclusive evidence that deadlifting causes a herniated disc more than any other motion. 

I’ve had people come to see me for disc herniations where they don’t even know how it happened. I’ve also had people come in and say they felt a pop after picking up a sock from the ground. 

Disc herniations can also happen with extension, which is the opposite of what you would expect based on all the different articles on the interwebs. 

I’m going to set the record straight in this article and also answer a few other questions that are related. 

I’m a doctor of physical therapy and powerlifter who’s worked with dozens of people with lower back pain and disc herniations. 

Without further ado, let’s dive in!

woman deadlifting barbell

Key Takeaways

  • deadlifting can cause disc herniations but so can bending forward to pick up a sock off the ground and many other motions

  • A disc herniation can and often will heal on it’s own. Some may require surgery if there is progressive numbness, tingling, and weakness plus bowel and bladder changes.

  • Disc herniations describe the inner portion of the intervertebral disc pushing through the annulis fibrosis (outer portion of disc). 

  • Disc herniations can be symptomatic or asymptomatic. 

  • If it’s not getting better over the course of a month, go work with a physical therapist but also note that this issue can take 6+ months to resolve in some cases. 

Deadlifting and disc herniations: Why Is Everyone So Afraid?

You might have heard that deadlifting is bad for your back and that it has a higher likelihood of causing a disc herniation than other types of activities. 

The reason this belief exists is because there have been studies that have shown that the annulus fibrosis, the outer fibrous section of the intervertebral disc, breaks down over successive bending. 

What they don’t tell you is that this test was done on cadavers (dead tissue), and they repeatedly flexed the spine 18,000 times. 

I think if I did 18,000 reps of anything including picking up a sock from the floor, I would die. 

Jokes aside, this study doesn’t really translate well to living, breathing humans, in fact, I would say the conclusions drawn that spinal flexion is bad are patently false and based on false pretenses. 

Others will make the statement that they know someone who experienced a back injury, namely a herniated disc after deadlifting and they point out, “See! Billy had a disc herniation when he was deadlifting – so, boom, you’re wrong!” 

And… while I understand that point and I will say that you’re not wrong that people still experience herniations with deadlifts my primary point is that it’s no more common than doing any other forward bending. 

In fact, I see more people experience herniations who DON’T LIFT WEIGHTS. Again, my observation is no data to say whether that’s demonstrably true or not. 

By the way, if you are having symptoms, please read this article detailing how to improve your symptoms if you have lower back pain after deadlifting.

What is a herniated disc, anyways?

A herniated disc is when the nucleus pulposus or the inner portion of the intervertebral disc pokes through the fibrous outer layer. 

Some people have symptoms with this, some do not. 

If you have progressive weakness, numbness, tingling, or bowel or bladder changes this is when you will want to discuss with your doctor and potentially surgeon. 

Aside from this, my recommendation is once again to treat it conservatively. 

If you want to read more about the specifics of a herniated disc you can read this article on the topic. 

What is a disc bulge? Is it the same as a disc herniation?

A disc bulge is a lesser version of a disc herniation. With a disc bulge, there is no escape of the inner disc material out of the outer section of the disc (annulus fibrosis). 

An important point to keep in mind about disc bulges is that many if not most people have them and don’t even know it. 

Put in other words, they are asymptomatic, and having them does not put you at a higher risk of developing pain. 

How does it happen?

A disc herniation can happen from a whole slew of different things. It can happen during deadlifting, that’s true, however, it can also happen from picking up a sock from the ground. It can also happen from bending backward, rotating from side to side, or any other combination of movements. 

There is not a one size fits all for this in any case. 

In fact, it’s very common for herniations to just kind of happen over time with no specific event. 

Does that surprise you?

Is it possible to prevent it from happening?

It’s my perspective that the best way to prevent negative events from happening that we should be armed with accurate information. 

This is the best way to prevent it from happening.

If you know that disc herniations can heal, you know that herniations and bulges don’t always cause symptoms, and you know that deadlifting does not increase your risk of herniations, then you will likely be much more mentally at ease if it does happen. 

Additionally, if you aren’t worried about it happening, there is likely a smaller chance that it will happen. 

When we tend to perseverate on things (in my opinion), we tend to make those things a reality. (you can also focus on positive things and it will drive you towards those, more)

If you tell yourself you’re going to injure yourself, there is some negative expectancy bias in there that could bite you. 

The same goes for if you say, I will always be poor, or I will always be bad at X. Those are statements that while they may be true at the moment, don’t need to be true forever.

Humans are malleable and we have the ability to learn and grow and improve. I hope you make that choice to continue to grow and improve!

What type of treatment should I get if I do have lower back pain from a disc herniation?

If you are experiencing lower back pain from a disc herniation and you are also experiencing symptoms down one leg or both legs, don’t panic. 

If you aren’t having progressive neurological deficits such as numbness, weakness, and tingling, it’s unlikely that you’ll need a surgical procedure or something drastic, like that. Instead, it’s my recommendation, in this case, to take a couple of days off of lifting, use ice, heat, and NSAIDs (as directed by your doctor), and then get back to progressive exercise, particularly walking after that. 

The pain can be severe, however, this severe pain generally will subside over time and it’s important to try and stay as active as possible. 

I wouldn’t even suggest avoiding deadlifts as long as they don’t increase your symptoms. If symptoms are the same after deadlifting with no worsening then you can still include these in your workout. 

As I shared earlier, deadlifts are no more the cause of disc herniations than basically anything else, including picking up your socks from the floor. 

Thank you for reading and I hope you have a great day!