A bulging, or herniated, disk occurs when the spongy center of a disk in the spine pushes out through a tear in the outer, rubbery portion of the disk. It can press on the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to pain and problems with mobility.
Bulging disks are usually due to age-related degeneration, while symptoms tend to progress gradually. People also call them herniated, ruptured, or protruding disks.
Doctors may recommend treatment for bulging disks in the back that range from short- to long-term options and that aim to decompress the spinal canal and ease the pain.
This article examines the causes and symptoms of a bulging disk. It also looks at potential treatments and exercises that may offer pain relief.
A bulging disk occurs when the inner, jelly like portion of the disks between the bones in the spine bulge out through a tear in the outer (annulus) portion of the disk.
A series of interlocking bones, called vertebrae, make up the spine. Between each vertebra is soft tissue, known as a spinal disk.
The disks provide support for the spine and allow for movement between the vertebrae and to prevent bones from rubbing against each other. They also act as shock absorbers to prevent damage during movement.
Each disk contains a tough outer layer with gel in the middle. This gel may lose its flexibility and become rigid with age.
The amount of gel can also decrease with age, become compressed, and push out. When the disk bulges, it may compress or make contact with a nerve and trigger pain.
Most bulging disks occur at the bottom of the lumbar spine. Sometimes, the outer layer of the disk breaks down and ruptures, and a gel-like center is pushed out through a tear in the disk’s exterior wall.
Symptoms of a bulging disk depend on its severity and location in the spine.
Some people may have no initial symptoms. However, with further disk degeneration and herniation, a person may experience the following:
- back pain that worsens with movement, such as when sneezing
- spasms in the back muscles
- weakness and numbness in the legs and feet
- reduced mobility in the legs, knees, and ankles
- decreased bladder and bowel control
- difficulty walking
- reduced coordination
Pain may also radiate to different areas of the body, such as the arms or rib cage.
People should seek help at once if they experience a loss of bowel or bladder control. This can happen when a group of lumbar and sacral nerve roots become compressed. This is called cauda equina syndrome, which is a medical emergency.
The following images show what a bulging or herniated disk involves.
Treatments for a bulging disk will depend on its severity and location.
Doctors may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to help with pain and reduce inflammation. For people with severe pain, steroid injections may be a suitable short-term solution.
If the disk ruptures, bed rest may be necessary. Sometimes, if the condition is severe, a doctor may perform surgery to reduce pain and improve mobility.
Over-the-counter pain relief may alleviate mild pain due to a bulging disk.
Physical therapy and exercises may help a person strengthen the muscles around the disk and improve mobility.
A doctor or physical therapist can help determine safe exercises for a person, depending on the position of the bulging disk. They may suggest gentle physical activities, such as yoga or walking.
Stretches for the back, neck, and legs might be another option that people can try at home to ease the pain. A person may also need to reach or maintain a moderate body weight to reduce pressure on the vertebrae.
Additionally, supporting the spine with protective equipment may ease symptoms of a bulging disk. For instance, a person could ensure their desk chair offers adequate lumbar support.
Some exercises may help relieve the symptoms of a bulging disk in the back, but people should check with a doctor or physical therapist first. Exercising in the wrong way may worsen any symptoms.
If any exercise makes the symptoms more severe, the person should stop.
The following are examples of exercises that may help with a disk bulge in the lower back:
- Find a parallel bar that is just higher than the person.
- Grab hold of the bar and let the body “hang” for 30 seconds.
- Repeat three times.
- Lie on your front on the floor, with the hands on the ground and just above shoulder level.
- Keeping the hips on the floor, raise the upper body, supporting it with the elbows.
- Hold for 10–15 seconds and slowly lower the upper body back to the floor.
- Gradually build up to 30 seconds and repeat ten times.
- Begin on your hands and knees, with the hands directly under the shoulders, and the knees right under the hips.
- Breathing in slowly, draw the chest forward and the shoulder blades down the back body. Keep the neck long and hug the low belly in.
- Exhaling slowly, press the floor away, round the upper back, and gently release the head and neck.
- Repeat ten times.
- Start by lying on a mat, face down, with the forearms on the mat.
- Using core strength, lift the body until you are resting on the forearms and toes.
- Hold for 20–30 seconds.
- Release slowly.
- Repeat five–ten times.
- Lie on your back, with the knees bent and the feet on the floor.
- Grasp one knee with both hands and pull it toward the chest.
- Hold, release slowly, and repeat with the other leg.
- Repeat five times.
- Lie on your back, holding both knees toward the chest, with the sacrum on the floor.
- Move the head forward until there is a stretch across the lower back, but do not strain.
- Repeat five times.
Find exercises to help with a herniated disk here.
Bulging disks result from a change in the consistency of the gel in the disk center. A reduction in gel quality can cause the disk to become compressed and start to bulge.
The gel in the spinal disk naturally wears away over time. A bulging disk usually results from aging, but it can also be due to spinal injury, such as the result of a car accident. An injury could also cause symptoms to become more severe.
Other risk factors include:
- engaging in some types of physical activity, especially if they involve repetitive movements
- having a job that involves lifting heavy objects
- having obesity or overweight
- driving frequently
- having a sedentary lifestyle with limited physical activity
- smoking, as it may accelerate degeneration by reducing the oxygen supply to the disk
(Video) Herniated Cervical Discs
Preventing a bulging disk is not always possible, as disk gel naturally degrades over time. However, people can take the following steps to prevent a bulging disk from becoming severe:
- reaching or maintaining a moderate body weight to reduce pressure on the vertebrae
- keeping physically active to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine
- staying flexible and taking breaks to stand and stretch when sitting for long periods
- practicing proper posture to reduce stress on the spine
Practicing proper posture, exercising regularly, and following a balanced diet can often improve back pain without seeking medical help.
A person should, however, consult a healthcare professional if they have back pain that worsens over time or accompanies other symptoms, such problems with bowel or bladder control.
People experiencing severe back pain following trauma or physical exertion may also need to contact a doctor.
Bulging, or herniated, disks occur when the spongy center of a disk in the vertebrae pushes out through a tear in the outer, rubbery portion of the disk.
A common cause of bulging disks is aging. A bulging disk can push against the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to severe pain and problems with mobility.
Treatment may include a combination of medication, physical therapy, and self-care.
In severe cases, a person may need surgery.
What is the best treatment for a bulging disc in the back? ›
Treatment with rest, pain medication, spinal injections, and physical therapy is the first step to recovery. Most people improve in 6 weeks and return to normal activity. If symptoms continue, surgery may be recommended.How serious is a bulging disc in your back? ›
A bulging disk can push against the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to severe pain and problems with mobility. Treatment may include a combination of medication, physical therapy, and self-care. In severe cases, a person may need surgery.Can a bulging disc go back into place? ›
Non-surgical treatments can include physical therapy or bracing to try and gradually ease the bulging disc back into its rightful place. When these conservative options fail, and there is still a lot of pain, a minimally invasive surgical procedure can be used to correct the bulging disc.
In nearly all cases, surgeons can remove just the protruding portion of the disk. Rarely, the entire disk must be removed. In these cases, the vertebrae might need to be fused with a bone graft. To allow the process of bone fusion, which takes months, metal hardware is placed in the spine to provide spinal stability.What makes a bulging disc worse? ›
The pain from a herniated disc usually is worse when you are active and gets better when you are resting. Coughing, sneezing, sitting, driving, and bending forward may make the pain worse. The pain gets worse when you make these movements because there is more pressure on the nerve.How did I get a bulging disk? ›
Disks show signs of wear and tear with age. Over time, disks dehydrate and their cartilage stiffens. These changes can cause the outer layer of the disk to bulge out fairly evenly all the way around its circumference — so it looks a little like a hamburger that's too big for its bun.How long can a bulging disc last? ›
How long do these disc herniations take to heal? Most disc bulges resolve in 6-8 weeks, but it can take longer depending on the size of the bulge (i.e. if the bulge is hitting the nerve behind it like described above).Is L4 L5 disc bulge serious? ›
A L4–L5 disc bulge (or slip-disc) in the L4-L5 region can cause severe health issues such as impotence and reproduction issues. It can also lead to infertility, loss or control of the bowel or bladder, paralysis in one or both of your legs, and even death.Can a disc bulge heal completely? ›
Herniated Disk (Slipped, Ruptured or Bulging Disk) A herniated disk is also known as a slipped, ruptured or bulging disk. It's one of the most common causes of neck, back and leg pain. Most of the time, herniated disks heal on their own or with simple home-care measures.Can a chiropractor fix a bulging disc? ›
Yes! Chiropractic care is the preferred treatment method for many patients suffering from a bulging disc. It is non-invasive and does not require drugs or injections of any kind. Chiropractic can help provide you with improved mobility, decreased pain, and overall better quality of life.
Is disc bulge permanent? ›
Disc bulges are not permanent. The disc is a fluid filled structure and therefore has the capacity to heal, resolve and be re-absorbed.How do you sit with a bulging disc? ›
Sit with the Right Posture
It is proper to sit up straight without slouching. When you slump, you put extra pressure on the discs in the spine and can aggravate your herniated disc. Additionally, you want to ensure your knees are level with your hips. Your hips should be slightly above your knees if you sit at a desk.
- High impact aerobics.
- Flexion-based movements.
- Leg lifts.
- Twisting movements.
- High-level core strength exercises.
- Overhead weightlifting.
- Repetitive forward bending at the waist.
Your doctor might recommend surgery as an option for your herniated disc if: Your symptoms have lasted at least 6 weeks and make it hard to do your normal activities, and other treatments haven't helped. You need to get better quickly because of your job or to get back to your other activities as soon as possible.Do bulging discs always require surgery? ›
When it comes to bulging discs, effective treatment comes in many forms. For some, relief can be found by pairing physical therapy with medication. For severe cases, a surgical option may be the only path to recovery.Is heat good for bulging disc in back? ›
Heat therapy may be best after those first 48 hours, as heat helps to relieve painful muscle spasms. Methods for applying heat include taking a warm bath, using a wrap that applies continuous low-level heat to the area, or by using a heating pad.Do muscle relaxers help bulging disc? ›
If a disc slips from its place between vertebrae and pinches a nerve, the electrical signals that move from the nerve to nearby muscle tissue may be disrupted, leading to painful muscle spasms. Muscle relaxant medications can calm spasms and ease pain, letting you move more easily.
Deep Tissue Massage: There are more than 100 types of massage, but deep tissue massage is an ideal option if you have a herniated disc because it uses a great deal of pressure to relieve deep muscle tension and spasms, which develop to prevent muscle motion at the affected area.How do you relax a bulging disc? ›
Applying heat and/or cold therapy to the lower back can alleviate muscle tension that is commonly present with a lumbar herniated disc. Heat helps loosen the muscle tightness that causes spasms, increases blood flow, and improves elasticity of connective tissue.Will an MRI show a bulging disc? ›
MRI scan is the best non-invasive test available to find herniated and bulging discs and annular tears. Because the spatial resolution of spinal anatomy can be defined to 0.5mm with an MRI scan, doctors can identify with over 95% accuracy the herniated discs in the spine.
How painful are bulging discs? ›
Evidence of a bulging disc may range from mild tingling and numbness to moderate or severe pain, depending on the severity. In most cases, when a bulging disc has reached this stage it is near or at herniation. Tingling or pain in the fingers, hands, arms, neck or shoulders.What diseases cause bulging discs? ›
Lumbar disk disease may occur when a disc in the low back area of the spine bulges or herniates from between the bony area of the spine. Lumbar disk disease causes lower back pain and leg pain and weakness that is made worse by movement and activity.What is the best treatment for L4-L5 disc bulge? ›
“Many people who have pain from a bulging disc will get pain relief with a few days of rest and some anti-inflammatories. Traction, physical therapy, and epidural steroid injections can be beneficial as well.”Can L4-L5 cause bowel problems? ›
There may also be a reduction or complete loss of bowel and/or bladder control. This condition, called cauda equina syndrome, is a medical emergency and requires urgent treatment to preserve leg function and restore bowel and/or bladder function.What should you not do with a L4-L5 disc bulge? ›
- Sit-Ups. Sit-ups are difficult to perform correctly and are not recommended for those with a herniated disc due to the pressure that is put on the lower back. ...
- Squats. ...
- Cycling. ...
- Standing Hamstring Stretch. ...
- Deadlifts. ...
- High Impact Aerobic Activity. ...
- Leg Press. ...
- Straight Leg Raises.
3) Fetal Position: When you suffer from a herniated disc, this is often the most comfortable position to sleep in. Fetal position is achieved by lying on your side with your knees pulled up to your chest. The position takes the pressure off your spine and allows you to get a good night's sleep.How do you prevent a bulging disc from getting worse? ›
When you strengthen your core muscles, your back is supported even more. As a result, the stability of a strong core reduces the chances of disc herniation. Tip: Certain exercises like, swimming, cycling, or walking can help you lose weight without putting too much stress on your back.
A herniated disc may require 1 or 2 days rest to alleviate pain. However, you should resist the temptation to lie in bed for days at a time because your muscles need conditioning to aid the recovery process. If you forgo exercise and physical activity, your body may not respond to treatment as well as it could.Is sitting or standing better for bulging disc? ›
Sitting is not really the preferred position when you have a herniated lumbar disc. Most physical therapists will recommend standing up, moving around or lying down over sitting.Is standing better than sitting for disc bulge? ›
You may be surprised to learn that sitting places more stress on your spinal discs than standing. On top of this, most people tend to slouch forward when they sit at their desks for an extended period of time. In turn, this can overstretch your spinal ligaments and strain your herniated disc.
Is bed rest good for bulging disc? ›
At best, too much bed rest does nothing to help you heal. At worst, it worsens your herniated disc. This is why it's best to only get limited bed rest and only immediately after you first experience pain from a herniated disc. The rule of thumb is no more than 2 days of bed rest.Is stationary bike good for bulging disc? ›
While a stationary bike is generally more stable, there is still the potential for excess disc pressure if it is not properly adjusted. Bending, in general, should be limited or avoided as much as possible if you have a bulging or herniated disc.Can a bulging disc heal on its own? ›
Herniated Disk (Slipped, Ruptured or Bulging Disk) A herniated disk is also known as a slipped, ruptured or bulging disk. It's one of the most common causes of neck, back and leg pain. Most of the time, herniated disks heal on their own or with simple home-care measures.How do you fix a bulging disc at home? ›
Start with ice to relieve inflammation. Apply an ice pack to your lower back for the first couple of days after the pain starts. On day three or four, switch to heat. Use a heating pad or an over-the-counter heat patch to help relax the muscles.What should I avoid with a bulging disc? ›
Skip movements that involve significant axial loading on the lower back, such as squats and leg presses. Avoid toe-touches, sit-ups, and yoga poses that worsen the pain and lead to significant bending of the back.How long does it take a bulging disc to go down? ›
Most disc bulges resolve in 6-8 weeks, but it can take longer depending on the size of the bulge (i.e. if the bulge is hitting the nerve behind it like described above).Can MRI show bulging disc? ›
MRI scan is the best non-invasive test available to find herniated and bulging discs and annular tears. Because the spatial resolution of spinal anatomy can be defined to 0.5mm with an MRI scan, doctors can identify with over 95% accuracy the herniated discs in the spine.What triggers a bulging disc? ›
Causes Of Bulging Disc
Body mechanics and poor posture that put stress on the spinal disc. Torsion of disc from repetitive work with a lot of bending, twisting or lifting. Sitting, standing driving or working for long periods of time. Sustaining back injury from a severe fall.
Sometimes, the nerves are actually damaged by the pressure from the disc herniation and may not recover completely. You may also develop scar tissue around the nerves weeks after the operation that causes pain similar to what you had before the operation.