What is a Bulging Disc? The Symptoms & Treatment Options

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 10, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University

Middle-aged woman struggling to stand up from the couch with a bulging disc injury

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, back pain (including disc problems) affects 3.7 million Australians.[1] This type of injury is most prevalent between 75-84 years.[1]

The disc functions to help cushion the spine stress and impact. This is comparable to suspension springs inside a car which absorbs the shock from the environment. Bulging discs can occur naturally over time and may not necessarily lead to any symptoms. In others, it can lead to worsening conditions, such as disc protrusions.

Read on to understand what you should know about a bulging disc; the risk factors, treatment options and expected recovery time.

Bulging Disc vs Herniated Disc

A bulging disc is when the disc ‘bulges’ or expands out from the edges. This is comparable to squeezing a filled water balloon and seeing the liquid bulge out from the elastic.

A herniated disc is where the inner contents of the disc begin to spill out beyond the border (annulus). As the inner contents leak out, this can compress the surrounding structures, such as the spinal cord and nerves.

Typically, a bulging disc is less likely to lead to severe spinal symptoms whereas a herniated disc will.

For a full breakdown on the difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc; read more here

What is a bulging disc?

A bulging disc is a spinal condition that can occur in the neck, mid-back and most commonly, the lower back. A bulging disc occurs when the material inside the disc begins to sag outwards. This can sometimes lead to issues such as pain and radiculopathy (nerve pain).

So what is a disc?

Your spine is made up of a series of bones (vertebrae) stacked on top of each other. These bones have a disc in between, which serves as a cushion for the vertebrae. These discs protect each bone by absorbing the shocks from daily activities like lifting, walking, and twisting.

However, injuries or muscle weakness may cause the disc to bulge out of its position. This may result in compression of the spinal nerves, which causes discomfort and back pain.

Depending on the severity of compression, you may experience numbness and pain along the compressed nerve.

This article will explore all the treatment options available and help you get back to your best in no time. We hope to help you understand what disc bulge is and what can be done to treat it.

What are the symptoms of a bulging disc?

Bulging discs can sometimes result in no pain or symptoms. Other times, a bulging disc can result in back or neck pain (depending on its location), numbness or weakness down the arm or leg.

Common symptoms of a bulging disc

  • Back pain

  • Pain and numbness on one side of the body (e.g.,legs, arms, feet, hands)

  • Pain that radiates or extends to your arms or legs

  • Pain that worsens at night

  • Pain after standing or sitting

  • Muscle weakness

  • A tingling and aching sensation that extends from your back to your arms or legs.

What causes a bulging disc?

Bulging discs are usually caused by increased pressure on the disc during activity, like a sporting injury or a heavy lift that goes wrong. Less commonly, a traumatic incident like a car accident can cause a bulging disc.

Common causes of a bulging disc

  • Improper posture

  • Improper lifting techniques

  • Obesity

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Smoking

  • Weakness of back muscles

  • Contact sports

  • Heavy lifting

  • Repetitive strain or injury of the back

  • Prolonged slouch sitting

  • Weight lifting

  • Repetitive twisting or bending.

How is a bulging disc diagnosed?

There are several different options when it comes to diagnosing a bulging disc. Australian GP’s most commonly recommend an assessment from a physiotherapist.A bulging disc is an injury that physiotherapists come across regularly, and the process of diagnosing is straightforward.

Like most pain or injuries, a physiotherapist will begin with a detailed history of your activities and past injuries. This is an interview-like process commonly referred to as a consultation. A typical consultation lasts between 30-60 minutes, and during this time, you will discuss the specific issues you are having related to your back pain.

After establishing the background of your condition, the physiotherapist will carry out a hands-on assessment, performing a series of physical tests to determine the cause of your problem and rule out other conditions.

Following your initial assessment, a tailored treatment plan will be created based on the severity of your injury. From here, your physiotherapist will establish how many sessions are required, what exercises you need to do at home and provide you with a timeline for how long it should take for a full recovery.

How is a bulging disc treated?

Having a disc bulge can be painful and may lead to further complications if left untreated. Therefore, it is essential to have your condition assessed by highly qualified experts such as physiotherapists to provide you with the appropriate treatment solutions.

There are several options when it comes to treating a bulging disc. One of the more common, and the treatment option that is referred by Australian GP’s, is physiotherapy.

A bulging disc is an injury that physiotherapists come across regularly, and the process of treating it is straightforward. Following an initial consultation, the physiotherapist will be in the best position to determine your treatment plan.

Depending on the severity of your bulging disc, a physiotherapist may provide you with a combination of the following types of treatments:

  • Education and professional advice - Physiotherapists can provide you with the best advice for managing your disc bulge

  • Manual therapy- Hands-on therapy to relieve muscle spasms and pain

  • Therapeutic massage - A technique used to reduce muscle tension

  • Specific exercises - Utilising exercises specific to treating a disc bulge

  • Stretching - Stretching can reduce pain and muscle tension

  • Dry needling - A specific technique used by physiotherapists to reduce muscle pain.

A typical physiotherapy session with your local physiotherapist will last anywhere between 30-60 minutes, and it is not uncommon for patients to feel the benefits in just one session.

Next step: Creating a treatment plan made for you

Following your initial appointment, your physiotherapist will craft a tailored treatment plan that will highlight the course of action required. This will include what exercises you need to do at home and provide you with a timeline for how long it should take for a full recovery.

Self-care for bulging discs

When it comes to getting treatment for a bulging disc, physiotherapy is the most obvious choice, however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can do to help accelerate your recovery.

If you think you have a bulging disc, here are the best things you can do and avoid.

Things you should do:

  • Take a break. Listen to your body and have a rest.

  • Drink plenty of water; hydration is always good for recovery.

  • Use hot packs for pain relief - they can be beneficial.

Things you should avoid:

  • If you’re experiencing pain while at work, playing sports, or even cleaning the house, don’t push through, there’s no benefit! This will only increase your pain and prolong your recovery.

Do I need a specialist or even surgery?

A bulging disc is a part of a complex process of disc herniation and may lead to severe complications if it further progresses. The outer covering of the disc may rupture, causing intense irritation and compression of the spinal nerves.

It is best to talk to your physiotherapist if your condition persists to reevaluate your options.

An MRI and CT scan can be done to get diagnostic imaging of your condition. Based on the result, the severity and location of the disc herniation can be determined. It is important to note that not all disc bulges cause pain and other symptoms.

Removal of a spinal disc can be done through surgery if none of the conservative treatment options are successful. Your surgeon would coordinate with your physical therapist to prepare you before and after the surgery if you decided to have one.

What is the recovery time / prognosis for bulging discs?

Recovery time is largely dependent on your proactiveness to seek professional treatment and the severity of your back pain and injury.

In some cases, patients begin to feel the benefits of physiotherapy in just one session. Typically, full recovery for a bulging disc is less than six weeks.

Important factors in recovery include:

  • Focusing on your rehabilitation program daily

  • Resuming your sports activity gradually

  • Paying attention to pain, and resting as necessary.

How can disc bulges be prevented?

These tips can double as things to prevent disc bulging from occurring as well as helping reduce symptoms if you already have one.

  • Control your weight: Maintaining a healthy weight will help your spine to manage the force you are putting on it. The less weight you have, the less the compression.

  • Exercise: Your spinal and core muscles act as stabilisers of the spine. Keeping them strong will help you prevent injuries like disc bulges and other spinal injuries. Your physio will provide you with detailed exercises to keep your spine healthy and strong.

  • Phase your activities: Staying in a particular position for too long will eventually cause excessive pressure on your spine and the structures around it. Instead, learn to take intermittent breaks from your activities.

  • Lifestyle modification: As we get older, our bodies start to show signs of wear and tear. To support our physical health, we have to maintain a healthy body through diet and exercise while avoiding things that may harm our body, such as smoking.

  • Maintain a good posture: Your posture plays a significant role in your spinal health. Maintaining a good posture will help you decrease the pressure on your spine.

Outlook and the main takeaways

If you take anything away from this article, it’s that there are several causes, symptoms and even severities of a bulging disc. The most important thing is to recognise when you are in pain and need professional help to get it sorted, book an appointment today with a physiotherapist to have your bulging disc assessed and treated.

Anatomy of the spine and spinal discs

Your spine is made of a series of bones (vertebrae) stacked on top of each other. It extends from your lower back up to your neck. Each of the spinal segments contains a fluid-like substance called the spinal disc. The spinal disc acts as a cushion to absorb shock and stress, preventing damage to the spine.

The spinal disc has an inner layer containing a gel-like substance called nucleus pulposus, and an outer covering called the annulus fibrosus.

As we get older, the water inside the disc diminishes. Additionally, the disc is prone to accumulative wear and tear due to the stress and demand we are putting on it.

Because of these factors, the disc loses its integrity to absorb compressive forces from the spine and may cause its outer layer to bulge. This may result in compression of the surrounding spinal nerves causing pain and a variety of symptoms.

Written by Leon Mao
Physiotherapist, University of Melbourne
Published on March 7, 2022
Medically reviewed by Dr Gina Arena
Research Fellow, University of Western Australia
Reviewed on March 10, 2022
Contributed by Nikita Mistry
Physiotherapist, Western Sydney University
Medical reviewers
Last medically reviewed on March 10, 2022
BookPhysio.com has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references. You can learn more about how we ensure our content is accurate and current by reading our editorial policy.
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