The aim of the present study was to identify the effect of swimming on nerve root pain in rats with lumbar disc herniation (LDH). A total of 72 male Sprague Dawley rats (215±15 g) were randomly divided into three groups (n=24/group): The sham operation, model and exercise intervention groups, with the latter undergoing 4 weeks of swimming training. On days 0, 7, 14 and 28 following surgery, the changes in the post-limb mechanical claw threshold, the phospholipase A2 (PLA2), interleukin (IL)-6 and tumor necrosis factor (TNF)-α mRNA expression levels, the secretory PLA2 (sPLA2) expression, the IL-6 and TNF-α content, the nuclear factor (NF)-κBp65 protein expression level in the nucleus pulposus, and the apoptotic rate of the nucleus pulposus cells were detected. The results demonstrated that, in the model group, the threshold of hind paw withdrawal was decreased, and that the sPLA2 expression, IL-6 and TNF-α content, PLA2, IL-6 and TNF-α mRNA and NF-κBp65 protein expression levels in the nucleus pulposus were increased. The apoptotic rate of the nucleus pulposus cells was increased from day 7 following surgery, as compared with the sham operation group. In the exercise intervention group, the hind paw withdrawal threshold increased and the TNF-α and IL-6 content, sPLA2 expression and PLA2, IL-6 and TNF-α mRNA and NF-κBp65 protein expression levels were decreased from day 14 following surgery, and the apoptotic nucleus pulposus cells were decreased from day 7 following surgery, as compared with the model group. Collectively, the present data suggest that swimming can significantly reduce nerve root pain and inhibit inflammatory reaction in LDH, which can have positive effects on the treatment of LDH.