A bulging disc is a flattening and spreading of one of the cushioning discs between your spinal bones or vertebrae. When a disc bulges, it protrudes beyond the space between your vertebrae and sometimes causes pain and numbness at the site of the bulge and/or in your legs and arms. You can use a variety of exercises to ease the effects of a bulging disc. You can also typically continue exercising once your condition is successfully resolved.
A bulging disc usually occurs when the hard outer layer of a spinal disc, called the anulus fibrosus, spreads out abnormally but still maintains an intact surface. It differs from a herniated disc, which occurs when the soft interior of a disc, called the nucleus pulposus, breaks through the anulus fibrosus and spills out between your vertebrae and related spinal nerves. In most cases, a bulging disc is the result of natural age-related changes to your body, although the condition can appear at almost any age. Sometimes, both professionals and lay people use the terms bulging disc and herniated disc interchangeably.
If you develop a bulging disc in your cervical or neck area, your doctor may ask you to perform certain exercises to help return the disc to its normal position. The specific exercises vary from person to person, but common activities include shoulder blade squeezes and chin tucks. If you develop a bulging disc in your lumbar or lower spine, your doctor may also help you develop a beneficial exercise routine. Activities commonly used for this purpose include lumbar extensions and elbow props.
After your bulging disc heals, your doctor may suggest a number of exercises to prevent further symptoms, halt the onset of spinal weakness or stiffness and strengthen the muscles that support your spine. Again, specific programs will vary, but exercises commonly used for this purpose include abdominal exercises, flexibility exercises, strength-training exercises and aerobics. Your doctor will help you find versions of these exercises that don’t cause pain or place undue stress on your spine. In addition, your doctor may recommend that you swim or take part in a Pilates exercise class.
Considerations and Unsuitable Exercises
You can worsen the symptoms of a bulging disc if you engage in exercises or activities that require you to lift any significant amount of weight, bend your spine forward or work with your shoulders or arms in front of the rest of your body. In addition to exercise, a physical therapy routine for a bulging disc may include activity modifications, posture and movement training, soft tissue massage, traction and a variety of other techniques or treatments. In some cases, individuals with bulging discs also require pain medication. If relatively conservative treatments don’t improve your back, your doctor may also consider surgery.
- MayoClinic.com: What's the Difference Between a Bulging Disk and a Herniated Disk?; Randy A. Shelerud, M.D.; February 2011
- SpineUniverse: Herniated and Bulging Discs: Stewart G. Eidelson, M.D.; May 2008
- Spine-Health: What's a Herniated Disc, Pinched Nerve, Bulging Disc...?; Peter F. Ullrich, Jr., M.D.; June 2009
- PhysioAdvisor.com: Cervical Disc Bulge; 2008
- PhysioAdvisor.com: Lumbar Disc Bulge; 2008