If you get pain in your neck, back, hips, or legs, it could be from a bulging spinal disc—the shock absorber that sits between all your vertebrae. But how can you know if you have a bulging disc, and if you do, what can you do about it? In this post, we’ll answer these questions and more, clearing up some confusion about bulging discs and related conditions and empowering you to take charge of your back health.
What is a bulging disc? Is It the Same as a Slipped Disc?
You can think of your spinal discs like jelly donuts, with a tough outer casing containing a more fluid core. Bulging disc is a medical condition in which the outer layer gets squeezed so much that it sticks out into the surrounding tissue, where, as luck would have it, your nerve roots happen to be located. This short animation gives a great visual of how this works in the body.
Often the result of normal wear and tear from aging, bulging disc can also result from injuries or repetitive strain as well as genetic factors. The condition usually occurs in the neck or low back, as these areas of the spine move more, take more strain, and don’t have the structural support of ribs that the upper body vertebrae do.
A bulging disc can cause pain in different areas and at various levels of intensity, depending on the location of the disc and the particular way each person’s body reacts to the strain. The pain can result from a nerve getting activated by the disc, or from spasming muscles trying to make up for the weakened disc and stabilize the spine. However, many people with bulging discs don’t actually have any pain or noticeable symptoms.
To clear up some confusion, this condition is NOT the same as a herniated disc, which is commonly referred to as a “slipped disc”. When a disc herniates, the outer layer actually cracks open, allowing the soft core material to ooze out. Because of the fluid-like nature of the disc core, it tends to extend much further out into the surrounding tissue than a bulging disc, so it’s more likely to cause pain and other symptoms.
How Do You Fix a Bulging Disc?
While medical theory holds that discs can’t repair themselves due to lack of blood supply, any pain from a bulging disc should lessen or even disappear over time as the disc and surrounding tissues stabilize. However, you can find relief from symptoms through a variety of approaches.
In some cases, doctors recommend surgery for bulging or herniated discs, such as disc replacement, spinal fusion, or alternative replacement devices such as BalancedBack™. These do not always provide lasting pain relief, though, and can cause other issues.
Stem-cell therapy is a new alternative to surgery that may provide significant improvements for spinal issues. Other non-surgical treatments can also be helpful for some people, including chiropractic, physical therapy, acupuncture, and various types of bodywork such as massage, myofascial release, and CranioSacral Therapy.
Painkillers, anti-inflammatories, and steroid injections can also provide temporary symptom relief in some cases, although they won’t address the underlying structural problems causing pain.
Healing depends on many factors, such as age, overall health, lifestyle, and even emotional well-being. As Dr. John Sarno discovered, symptoms can often be more related to stress and negative emotions than physiology.
Practicing healthy habits, especially for your back and spine, can help reduce bulging disc symptoms and prolong the life of your discs. So let’s look at some of these habits.
Bulging Disc Remedies You Can Do Yourself
Developing healthy posture can do wonders for your spine, but you have to make posture training a habit in order to get real benefits. If you work a desk job, using ergonomic office equipment can support you in maintaining good posture.
A sit-stand desk, in particular, can also help you with another healthy habit for bulging discs, which is to avoid staying in one position for long periods of time.
Most of us have heard by now that sitting all day will kill you, and standing all day isn’t much better. Keep moving throughout the day, changing positions between sitting and standing, and taking short breaks to stretch, walk, and exercise.
Speaking of stretching, yoga can be a great way to strengthen the muscles around your lower spine and make sure you maintain a healthy level of flexibility.
Other kinds of exercise can also be helpful. According to Dr. Josh Axe, “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.”
What you eat can also have a big impact on your spine health. The modern diet is loaded with inflammatory ingredients such as sugars, preservatives, farming pesticides, and refined oils. Chronic inflammation puts more strain on your body and adds to any pain that may be triggered by a disc problem. So eat more veggies (organic if possible), healthy fats like avocado, unrefined coconut oil, and olive oil, and wild or grass-fed meats.
De-Stress for Success
You can also do your back a favor by considering the role stress may be playing in any pain you’re experiencing and seeking ways to calm your nerves. You know all the soothing “indulgences” you deny yourself because you’re too busy working (aka web surfing)? Do those:
- Massage soothes tense muscles and stimulates mood-elevating hormones like dopamine and serotonin, and oxytocin while reducing adrenal activity.
- Aromatherapy with scented candles or an essential oil diffuser can lift your spirits and calm your mind as well. Try lavender for rest and relaxation, lemon for a lift, or peppermint for clearing your head.
- Chill out with a hot cup of relaxing herbal tea like chamomile, peppermint, or lemon balm.
- Go for a hike. Take a break from your screens and get out in nature. Maybe even turn off your phone, or even <gasp> leave it behind.
On the flip side, a good workout can get out some aggression and give you an endorphin boost—kickboxing, anyone?
If you have trouble finding that happy place, consider talking with a counselor. Sometimes just having a trusted and objective ally to talk through problems with can be the best medicine. Don’t underestimate the emotional side of back pain—find what works for you and make it part of your routine.
Bulging discs can be a pain, but they don’t have to be, and with a little self-care, you can help your spine stay healthy and relieve any symptoms that do occur as your body changes over time.
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