Yoga Therapy for a Bulging Disk

Businessman meditating barefoot on desk
Yoga is a viable approach to treating bulging disks. (Image: Jupiterimages/liquidlibrary/Getty Images)

If you suffer from a bulging disk, you may be looking for ways to avoid drug therapy, surgery or other invasive treatments. In that case, there's good news. While yoga practitioners have known for a long time that the practice can do wonders for spinal problems, mainstream medicine has officially given its blessing. The most recent American College of Physicians guidelines for lower back pain advocate yoga along with other more holistic approaches.

About Those Disks

Disks serve as cushions between the vertebrae in your spine, which they protect by absorbing shock. Often likened to a jelly donut, their soft squishy center is encased by a tough layer of cartilage. Time and injury can cause the cartilage to grow brittle, sometimes causing the outer layer of the disk to spill out or bulge into the spinal canal.

Although the phrase "bulging" and "herniated" are sometimes used interchangeably when applied to spinal disks, there's a difference. A bulging disk occurs when the tough exterior of the disk protrudes into the spinal canal. A herniated disk has usually split or cracked, allowing some of the gelatinous filling to leak out. Bulging disks may turn into herniated disks, which are more likely to cause pain because the ruptured material can irritate the spinal canal.

Proceed Cautiously

If you have been diagnosed with a disk problem or think you have one, it's important to discuss yoga with your orthopedist. While many yoga poses may help, others may hurt. And it's not the same for everybody.

Also, be sure to inform your yoga instructor about your particular spinal condition. In general, forward folds are not a good idea for people with disk problems because they compress the disks and can push them further out of place. Listen to your body. It'll usually send you a clear message whether a pose is right or wrong for your condition.

Backache. Pain in the lower back. Shirless man touching his back for the pain.
A herniated disk is more likely to cause pain than a bulging disk. (Image: stevanovicigor/iStock/Getty Images)

Sciatica: the Ultimate Pain in the Butt

One of the problems a bulging disk can cause is sciatica, which can be a sharp pain or a dull ache that starts in the butt and can radiate down one or both legs. A bulging disk can cause sciatica by impinging on the root nerves that branch out from the spine. In this case, try Mountain pose. It's a standing pose that will help re-align your posture and particularly your pelvis. Also good for helping those vertebrae adjust their attitude is the old standby Downward-Facing Dog.

Getting Un-hamstrung

Tight hamstrings cause the pelvis to pull out of alignment and are a frequent contributor to disk problems. But forward folds -- usually the first approach to stretching out hamstrings -- can worsen matters if you having a bulging disc. Instead, try the Reclining Hand-to-Big-Toe pose with one leg at a time extended and a belt hooked around your foot to enhance your stretch without straining your lower back. You might also benefit from a Wide-Legged Forward Bend since the widened stance is less likely to create the disk compression that is a problem with other forward folds. And you can always take the easy way out with a modified Corpse pose, performed with your legs up and your calves docked on a chair or couch.

Backbends: The Antidote to Gravity

Backbends are a staple of yoga practice because they serve to counterbalance the fact that most of our daily activities pull us forward, tightening and weakening muscles throughout the back. Make space for your bulging disk to go back where it belongs with Cobra, which makes space between the vertebrae and prevents compaction. Bridge pose is another page from Yoga 101 that helps with lower body alignment. It's performed from a supine position with the knees up, and involves lifting the pelvis upward to flatten out the curve in the back, engaging the pelvic muscles and the erector spinae.

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