Do you have a bulging disc that’s causing you back pain strong enough to interfere with your job, family life or normal day-to-day activities? Feeling afraid that you’ll never be able to get your pain under control for good and that it might just continue to worsen as you get older?
You’re not alone. Many people with a bulging or herniated disc feel confused, frustrated and worried about their condition. In the general population, about 1 percent to 2 percent of all people are believed to have a somewhat serious bulging disc. The older you get, the likelier you are to develop disc problems because over the years spinal discs lose their structure, elasticity, lubricating fluid and become more brittle.
The good news is you can help prevent cracks, bulges or inflammation in your spinal discs from developing or worsening by changing certain aspects of your lifestyle. Let’s talk about how you can effectively help heal your bulging disc in the fastest way possible, allowing you to finally get some relief without needing to rely on medications or, even worse, unnecessary surgery.
Bulging Disc Treatments: 7 Ways to Find Natural Relief from Back Pain
A bulging disc is a very common occurrence that results in a spinal disc compressing against an adjacent nerve root. The disc essentially pushes out of its normal place and starts impinging on nearby nerves of the spine, sometimes causing pain. For some people, bulging discs can cause a good deal of discomfort, at times progressing enough that they can become disabling and affect someone’s quality of life greatly.
There are different severities of bulging or herniated discs — some that are more problematic than others. Not everyone with a bulging disc experiences pain or even any noticeable symptoms at all, although many do. In fact, it’s now understood that many people with bulging herniated discs function without any pain at all and aren’t even aware of the problem. Studies show that bulging discs are common — more than 50 out of 100 older people examined using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) have some degree of a bulging disc — but the underlying causes aren’t well-understood, which makes appropriate treatment difficult. (1)
If you’ve visited a doctor about a painful bulging disc, you might have been given medications, such as over-the-counter painkillers, anti-inflammatory drugs, muscle relaxers or steroids to help control your symptoms. While these might work in the short term to keep you more comfortable, they won’t target the underlying cause of the bulging disc or prevent another one from forming.
Estimates show that only about 10 percent of people wind up getting corrective surgery to treat a bulging disc. (2) Luckily for many people, disc problems heal within several months (sometimes as little as within one month) and pain will subside, especially if you take steps to lower swelling and inflammation. On the other hand, for some people pain can linger on for many months or come and go. Unfortunately, developing a bulging disc makes you more susceptible to having future back problems, so this is why it’s important to do all you can to remain strong, flexible and at a healthy body weight as you get older.
What are some therapeutic options that can help correct disc problems without the risk for side effects? These include seeing a chiropractor or physical therapist, improving your diet, staying active, stretching, and more.
1. See a Chiropractor for Spinal Adjustments
A chiropractor can help determine the type of bulging disc you’re suffering from, plus help you pinpoint some of the underlying causes. After diagnosis, a chiropractor will perform targeted adjustments to help realign the spinal discs and prevent protrusion into the spinal canal. (3) The exact type of adjustments performed depends on what the chiropractor finds during a physical exam.
Adjustments can include flexion-distraction, muscle stimulation, physiotherapy, supplementation, and at-home stretches, exercises or treatments. I recommend referring to the CLEAR Institute website for help understanding how chiropractic adjustments and targeted exercises can help correct the spine without the use of bracing or performing risky surgeries.
Chiropractic adjustments have been well-researched for treating symptoms of bulging discs, including sciatic nerve pain, stiff neck and chronic lower back pain. A study published in the Official Journal of the North American Spinal Society found that chiropractic adjustments helped adults with sciatic nerve pain feel less local pain, have fewer number of days with pain, and fewer cases of moderate or severe pain compared to people who didn’t receive adjustments. (4)
2. Visit a Physical Therapist
If pain from a bulging disc makes it hard to move around or work normally, a physical therapist can assign specific exercises and stretches to improve your range of motion, strength and flexibility. One type of physical therapy or postural correction I’d recommend is Egoscue, which is a series of gentle, targeted exercises that helps correct musculoskeletal dysfunctions and compensations that put the spinal discs at risk for injuries.
Before doing any heavy lifting or new types of exercises that can trigger even more pain, talk to a physical therapist for help starting. Also pay close attention to your symptoms, noticing what helps reduce pain versus what makes it worse. You might find that certain things (like heavy lifting, sitting for long periods, running or jumping) aggravate symptoms and you need some time to rest before continuing them. (5)
Once you learn the correct form and exercises, you can continue to practice at home to keep your back muscles strong and prevent another injury. Physical therapy can also be extremely helpful for working on developing good posture. For example, improving strength in your back keeps your shoulders back and down while you walk, your chin and neck straight while you sit, and your navel tucked in to protect your lower back while you go about day-to-day activities.
3. Stay Active
People who remain active into older age tend to experience less fragility, loss of mobility, injuries and inflammation. Sitting for prolonged periods of time can cause bulging discs and back pain to become even worse, since staying inactive weakens muscles and puts more pressure on the spine, especially if you’re overweight.
As long as you’re not in severe pain that keeps you from being able to move around, try walking daily and doing other forms of exercise you enjoy, like exercises to strengthen your core to prevent low back pain. This can help you maintain flexibility, strengthen and protect your back, and keep you on your feet more often. Try to simply take more steps every day, and consider getting a pedometer or fitness tracker, which can motivate you to keep increasing your walking distance slowly and safely.
Performing weight-bearing exercises (especially those that build strength in the lower back), doing light exercises in a pool, performing simple bodyweight exercises, dancing, cycling and swimming are all good choices for injured or older people who might not be able to do more than light activities. These are low-impact forms of exercise and customizable depending on your fitness level. Stretching and lengthening the spine are also beneficial. Stretching can help develop good posture while reducing inflexibility, stiffness, inflammation and pain.
4. Get Enough Sleep and Rest
Overworking your muscles, bones and joints can lead to inflammation and weakened discs, which is why you want to avoid overtraining. Make sure to make it a priority to get a good night’s sleep (seven to nine hours a night for most adults), plus give yourself enough rest between workouts (especially if they’re intense and involve lots of repetitive motions). This is important for keeping stress hormones under control, supporting a healthy body weight and reducing the risk for further injuries.
5. Work on Correcting Your Posture
Ideally you won’t spend many hours a day sitting down behind a desk, but if you do, it’s even more important that you take time to focus on good posture, stretch frequently and get up and move around. Take breaks every 20–30 minutes to avoid sitting for many hours while working at a desk or sitting down watching TV. Incorporate targeted posture exercises into your day to loosen up tight areas (like your lower back, neck and hamstrings), and retrain yourself how to sit, walk or drive with proper posture.
While working, consider using a supportive ergonomic chair that supports correct back posture. During your leisure time, try to do specific stretches or light isometric exercises that strengthen your spine and core, stretch your legs, and loosen up your shoulders and neck.
6. Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
High levels of inflammation weaken your bones, muscles and joints, which makes it more likely that you’ll deal with disc problems. While inflammation alone might not cause a bulging disc, it can make spinal injuries harder to recover from and further exacerbate painful symptoms.
One of the best ways to control inflammation is to eat a nutrient-dense diet filled with healing foods, while lowering your intake of things like sugar, processed meats, chemically sprayed crops, refined grain products, alcohol and packaged snacks. This helps you stay at a healthy weight, which reduces the load placed on your lower back.
What are some of the best anti-inflammatory foods for combating pain? These include leaf green veggies, healthy fats including extra virgin olive oil and coconut oil, “clean and lean proteins” (cage-free eggs, grass-fed meat, wild-caught fish), and fermented foods which contain probiotics. Other important factors for reducing body-wide inflammation include avoiding smoking/recreational drugs, lowering stress and sleeping well.
7. Reduce Pain Using Essential Oils, Massage Therapy, Heat and Acupuncture
Heating packs, acupuncture treatments and massages are all beneficial for back, neck and limb pain. Acupuncture is a type of Traditional Chinese Medicine that uses tiny needles to help unleash the body’s natural flow of energy. It might sound intimidating, but it’s practically pain-free and has been approved by the FDA as a treatment for back pain of all kinds.
One meta-analysis that reviewed the effects of acupuncture on 2,678 patients with chronic back pain from 13 randomized controlled trials found that acupuncture helped decrease pain intensity and level of disability while improving spinal flexion and quality of life compared to not receiving treatments. (6)
Using heating packs on the painful area or receiving a therapeutic massage can also soothe back tightness and inflammation, but these need to be performed at the proper time to be safe and beneficial. Heat can actually do more harm than good following an injury, so avoid heating the painful area for at least the first 72 hours. Icing the swollen area during the first 72 hours using ice packs, followed by targeted heat therapies, is a safe way to treat back pains.
After you’ve given the inflamed area time to start healing, try using a heating pad on low or medium for 15 to 20 minutes several times per day, laying down with the pad placed on your back or wrapping it around your lower back while you sit down. A hot shower or bath is another convenient, effective way to dull pain. Add Epsom salt to a hot bath, along with soothing essential oils, such as peppermint or lavender oil, to further penetrate and relax the inflamed area.
Heating and massaging painful areas helps relax muscles, loosen up tight tissue, increase blood flow and even increase the production of painkilling, calming chemicals, such as endorphins. While there’s some controversy over whether or not massage therapy is appropriate for people with disc problems, many think that this can be a valuable means of helping reduce soft tissue and nerve pain located in the lumbar region that’s affected by a protruding disc. However, before beginning massage treatments it’s a good idea to get clearance from your doctor if you’re unsure about the severity of your condition (7). For a safe pain-reducing treatment you can utilize at home, try making a homemade muscle rub using peppermint essential oil, which penetrates stiff muscles and reduces inflammation.
Bulging Disc vs. Herniated Disc: What’s the Difference?
Disc problems go by many names: herniated discs, slipped discs, collapsed discs, ruptured discs, etc. This can become confusing for patients, especially since different health care professionals don’t always agree on the different definitions and various causes of disc problems.
The good news is that despite the confusion about different terminologies, the underlying causes of most disc problems are usually very similar. Doctors might refer to your disc pain by different names depending on what they observe during a physical exam or when questioning you about your back pain, leg pain, medical history and lifestyle, but the same treatment options work for almost all types.
If you’ve been given several different diagnoses and are confused about what is causing your back pain, here’s what you need to know:
A herniated disc is more like a disc opening and spilling its insides out, while a bulging disc is the disc stretching and protruding outward. Herniated discs are also called ruptured discs or slipped discs more often than bulging discs are. Compared to herniated discs, bulging discs are more common, and they might also go unnoticed more often since they can cause less pain. Then again, each person’s symptoms are different.
The main difference between the two is that a bulging disc is thought to be caused by pressure that forces the disc to stretch, while on the other hand a herniated disc is primarily caused from a crack developing in the tough outer layer of the disc’s cartilage. (8) With a herniated disc, once a crack forms it’s possible for the disc’s softer inner cartilage to move through the crack and touch surrounding nerves, similar to what happens with a bulging disc.
Bulging Disc Symptoms
Common symptoms of a bulging disc can include: (9)
- localized pain felt in the spinal area, lower back, middle back, limbs, neck or head
- tingling or pain that travels down to the fingers, toes and wrists
- numbness and weakness in the area of the body where the bulging disc is
- pain and numbness in the buttock and down the legs (sciatic pain)
- trouble moving normally due to muscle aches, throbbing or weakness
Although bulging discs are most likely to develop in the back (estimates show that about 90 percent of bulging discs occur in the lower back, or lumbar area), they can also affect other parts of the body when the abnormal disc comes into contact with nerves that connect to the hips, buttocks, legs, neck and feet. The spine affects far more than just the back. It extends up to the neck and through the limbs, which is why it’s not uncommon for pain to be felt almost throughout the whole body.
The type of pain caused by a bulging disc is a clue to where the abnormal disc is located:
- Lumbar bulging discs most often cause pain in the buttocks, legs, feet and abdomen.
- Cervical bulging discs most often cause pain in the head, neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers. (10)
- Thoracic bulging discs cause pain in the hands, chest, back and abdomen.
Causes of Bulging Discs
While they can develop at any age, bulging disks are most common in people over the age of 30, and for reasons not totally understood they’re twice as common in men as in women.
Discs act like soft cushions that buffer the space between vertebrae, which are the small bones in the spinal column. Normally, discs serve as our natural absorbers of shock, allowing us to move around and remain flexible. In healthy adults, discs have a soft, gel-like center (called the nucleus pulposus) made up of flexible cartilage, surrounded by a tougher layer (the annulus fibrosus) that keeps them held in place.
As someone becomes older, experiences more inflammation or becomes injured, the outer layer (the fibrous portion) of the discs becomes more susceptible to being stretched, pulled or bulged out of the normal place they occupy. Once bulging, a disc becomes wider, stretched and also might become slightly squashed at the same time. Some experts say a bulging disc looks almost like “a hamburger that’s too big for its bun.”
Growing pressure around a disc and poor posture are two common reasons why discs can start to bulge. When a normal disc experiences accumulating pressure, it starts to expand abnormally outward where it can come into contact with sensitive neural tissues. Eventually the bulging disc protrudes into the spinal canal, which is what triggers the sharp pain or tingling sensation that’s associated with disc problems. (11)
Whether pain is felt in other parts of the body or not, the bulging disc itself is located in the back. The most common type of bulging disc is located in the lower back, which is called the lumbar region (specifically an area called lumbar vertebra L4 and L5) where the sciatic nerve, among other spinal nerves, is located. This is why bulging discs are the most common cause of sciatic nerve pain, which results in frequent leg, lower back and neck pain or tingling.
The cervical spine is very sensitive to pain since it holds the spinal cord, which is responsible for sending chemical messages to and from the brain. Bulging discs in the neck are likely to cause pain that expands to the head, scapular area, shoulders, arms, forearm and hands. (12) In general, the lower back and neck are more susceptible to bugling discs than the thoracic spine because these are the areas under the most strain and pressure, since they help us move, bend over, twist, turn and do many exercises. Estimates show that only about 1 percent of disc problems occur within the thoracic spine since these vertebrae are connected to the rib cage, which helps keep them in place. (13)
Now that you understand how a bulging disc develops, let’s look at the underlying cause of a bulging disc. What causes the disc to protrude outward in the first place?
Disc pains are sometimes said to be age-related and just a “normal part of getting older.” While there’s plenty you can do to help prevent bulging discs, it’s true they’re more common among older people, since aging causes intervertebral discs to weaken. Other factors besides old age that contribute to bulging discs include:
- Wear and tear of the discs (another side effect of getting older)
- Loss of mobility and flexibility in the spine
- An injury to the spine or neck
- Being overweight
- High amounts of inflammation due to factors like a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking or drug use, and high amounts of stress
- Degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease
- Improper form when exercising (such as lifting weights incorrectly)
- Working at a job that causes excessive back and neck strain
- Being tall (studies show that taller individuals tends to have more bulging discs)
- Having poor posture
Bulging Disc Takeaways
- The following ways can help naturally treat a bulging disc: see a chiropractor for spinal adjustments, visit a physical therapist, stay active, get enough sleep and rest, work on correcting your posture, eat an anti-inflammatory diet, and reduce pain using essential oils, massage therapy, heat and acupuncture.
- A herniated disc is more like a disc opening and spilling its insides out, while a bulging disc is the disc stretching and protruding outward.
- Common symptoms of a bulging disc can include: localized pain felt in the spinal area, lower back, middle back, limbs, neck or head; tingling or pain that travels down to the fingers, toes and wrists; numbness and weakness in the area of the body where the bulging disc is; pain and numbness in the buttock and down the legs (sciatic pain); headaches; and trouble moving normally due to muscle aches, throbbing or weakness.
- The type of pain caused by a bulging disc is a clue to where the abnormal disc is located: lumbar bulging discs most often cause pain in the buttocks, legs, feet and abdomen; cervical bulging discs most often cause pain in the head, neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, hands and fingers; thoracic bulging discs cause pain in the hands, chest, back and abdomen.
- In general, the lower back and neck are more susceptible to bugling discs than the thoracic spine because these are the areas under the most strain and pressure, since they help us move, bend over, twist, turn and do many exercises.
- Factors besides old age that contribute to bulging discs include: wear and tear of the discs; loss of mobility and flexibility in the spine; an injury to the spine or neck; being overweight; high amounts of inflammation due to factors like a poor diet, a sedentary lifestyle, smoking or drug use, and high amounts of stress; degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis/degenerative joint disease; improper form when exercising; working at a job that causes excessive back and neck strain; being tall; and having poor posture.