Exercises and lifestyle choices to avoid back and neck surgery

There are several exercises that you can do to help you avoid back and neck surgery. But there are also important lifestyle choices that I recommend you consider. Exercises and lifestyle choices are always essential elements in everything we do. I’ve been a spinal neurosurgeon for over 20 years at Cedars Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. I’m also a professor at the UCLA Medical Center. I’ve also led several FDA clinical trials for artificial disc replacement. I’ve seen many patients who ask me this question, after the fact; after they have injured themselves and are suffering from chronic neck and back pain. Some of them have had surgery and have hurt themselves again or are suffering from Failed Back Surgery Syndrome (FBSS), which is one of my primary treatment specialties.


No matter where you are in this cycle, there are exercises and lifestyle choices that can start right now that can prevent or ease your neck and back pain. You can improve your posture, strengthen your spine, your overall state of wellness, and possibly delay or avoid the need for surgery.


First, I’d like you to be very honest about your use of personal computers and other electronic devices – especially your phone – and make changes today:


“Laptop” doesn’t mean that you must use it on your lap. Prolonged use of any device at a “book reading” posture will damage your spine. Check how you use your electronic devices. If you use any of them for more than two hours in one sitting, then you should seriously consider these changes:


Consider switching to a desktop computer, or connect your laptop to a monitor. Your line of sight should be the center of the monitor. Hold a healthy sitting posture and look at your monitor. Keep your keyboard where your hands naturally fall, without crouching. You may have to lower your keyboard.


Your phone is a great convenience, but it’s also one of the biggest causes for “text neck.” I can’t emphasize enough the damage you can do to your neck and back when you hold the “reading position” for prolonged periods of time. Limit your phone use when you can. Use it to make calls and stay in communication with people. Do what you can to reduce screen reading time. But if you have to read, keep your phone at eye level. Some folks may think you are taking a picture of them. Tell them that you’re just saving your neck.


Watch your nutrition and drink water. The two most important nutrients for spine health are Vitamin D and Calcium. Eating foods rich in these nutrients are ideal like salmon, eggs, broccoli, sweet potatoes, avocado, and papaya are a great way to help with spine health. Avoid sugar and carbohydrates (especially breads) that can cause weight gain, which in turn puts extra strain on the spine. Then, adopt a new habit. Instead of sodas and cafe latte, drink plenty of water. Increasing your water intake will help your body regulate body temperature, but also maintain a state of homeostasis in the body.


The right sleep. I recommend a sleeping position that keeps your spine in alignment. For many of my patients, that means getting a “sleep pillow” and positioning it under the, neck, knees or between your legs. The average person moves about 80 times in one 8-hour night of sleep. A good sleeping posture can help with that, however, your main sleeping goal: get 8 hours of sleep per night. Let your body work through the REM cycles, because that is what it needs to heal itself.


Fitness promotes body strength. Everything about your body is a system. Even your muscles and your spine. A fact that you may have learned in high school: your skeletal system depends on the health of your muscles. Your muscles keep the bones in the proper position. When your muscles fail, so will your bones.


I have a list of exercises that have helped improve spine health for many of my patients. After I name each exercise, I give you how many times you should do the exercise by dividing them into sets (groups of repetitions) and repetitions (number of times performed).


The exercises are divided into two groups: ones that aid in cervical (neck) health, and lumbar (lower back) health.

Cervical (Neck) Exercises

Scapular Retraction

Sets: 3

Repetitions: 15

Hold: 2-3 seconds

Muscle groups affected: rhomboids, middle trapezius and lower trapezius (the “traps).

  1. Stand with your arms down by your sides, with your thumbs and palms pointed backward. Each repetition: pinch shoulder blades backward, together and down.
  2. Hold your upper trapezius down – resist lifting your shoulders up.
  3. Hold each repetition for 2 to 3 seconds, then relax and repeat.

Remember, resist pinching your shoulders up. Keep your head and hands in the same position.

Alternately, you can do this exercise by lying face down on a mat.

Simple Row

Sets: 3

Repetitions: 15

Muscle groups affected: rhomboids, middles trapezius, lower trapezius.

  1. Secure an exercise band to a closed door or bring cable pulley to elbow height from the floor (at the level of the door handle). Hold handles with thumbs pointed up.
  2. Stand and tighten your core without arching your back. Maintain a tall posture.
  3. Bring your shoulder blades back and down, then pull the cables towards you.

Try to keep your shoulders and back flat (resist the urge to pinch up and arch).

Take it to the next level by doing this exercise on a Swiss ball.

W’s on Foam Roll or Standing Against Wall

Repetitions: 10

Hold: 3-5 seconds

  1. Lay on the foam roll with both your head and buttocks on the foam roll.
  2. Keep the back flat and tuck your chin to your chest (make a double chin).
  3. Bring your hands to head level, elbows level with your shoulders. You’ll form a “W” (imagine making a snow angel).

Lumbar (Lower Back) Excercises

Planking (Full and Modified)

Time: 30-60 seconds

This exercise helps with core stabilization with lumbar spine in a neutral position.

  1. Start facing down with hands and elbows on the mat. Your elbows under your shoulders.
  2. Your toes should be “active” with heels together. Modified: drop your knees to the mat.
  3. Keep your back as flat as possible (no arching), and core tight. Push your body weight down through your shoulders.
  4. Hold this position for as long as possible – start with 30 seconds, work your way up to 60 seconds.


Sets: 3

Reps: 10

Hold: 30-60 seconds

Muscles affected: gluteus, hamstrings, lumbar extensors.

  1. Lie on your back, keeping your arms to the side, hands flat on the floor, place feet flat on the floor. Keep your feet and knees about hip-width apart.
  2. Tighten your core. Hold your heels down into the floor, and lift your buttocks off the ground and hold. You should not feel pain in your back. If you do then slightly lower your buttocks.
  3. Start with 30 seconds, work your way up to 60 seconds.


Sets: 3

Reps: 10

  1. Start with your hands and knees on the floor. Making sure hips are directly over knees and hands are directly under shoulders. Keep your back flat.
  2. Tighten your core, then slowly extend one leg backward, then slowly bring back underneath you.
  3. Resist arching your back or leaning to one side as you move.

Take it to the next level by lifting one leg and the opposite arm at the same time.

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