A bulging, or herniated, disk occurs when the spongy center of a disk in the spine pushes out through a tear in the outer, rubbery portion of the disk. It can press on the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to pain and problems with mobility.

Bulging disks are usually due to age-related degeneration, while symptoms tend to progress gradually. People also call them herniated, ruptured, or protruding disks.

Doctors may recommend treatment for bulging disks in the back that range from short- to long-term options and that aim to decompress the spinal canal and ease the pain.

This article examines the causes and symptoms of a bulging disk. It also looks at potential treatments and exercises that may offer pain relief.

person in blue shirt resting hands on lower backShare on Pinterest
Image credit: DjelicS/Getty Image

A bulging disk occurs when the inner, jelly like portion of the disks between the bones in the spine bulge out through a tear in the outer (annulus) portion of the disk.

A series of interlocking bones, called vertebrae, make up the spine. Between each vertebra is soft tissue, known as a spinal disk.

The disks provide support for the spine and allow for movement between the vertebrae and to prevent bones from rubbing against each other. They also act as shock absorbers to prevent damage during movement.

Each disk contains a tough outer layer with gel in the middle. This gel may lose its flexibility and become rigid with age.

The amount of gel can also decrease with age, become compressed, and push out. When the disk bulges, it may compress or make contact with a nerve and trigger pain.

Most bulging disks occur at the bottom of the lumbar spine. Sometimes, the outer layer of the disk breaks down and ruptures, and a gel-like center is pushed out through a tear in the disk’s exterior wall.

Symptoms of a bulging disk depend on its severity and location in the spine.

Some people may have no initial symptoms. However, with further disk degeneration and herniation, a person may experience the following:

Pain may also radiate to different areas of the body, such as the arms or rib cage.

People should seek help at once if they experience a loss of bowel or bladder control. This can happen when a group of lumbar and sacral nerve roots become compressed. This is called cauda equina syndrome, which is a medical emergency.

The following images show what a bulging or herniated disk involves.

Treatments for a bulging disk will depend on its severity and location.

Doctors may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to help with pain and reduce inflammation. For people with severe pain, steroid injections may be a suitable short-term solution.

If the disk ruptures, bed rest may be necessary. Sometimes, if the condition is severe, a doctor may perform surgery to reduce pain and improve mobility.

Over-the-counter pain relief may alleviate mild pain due to a bulging disk.

Physical therapy and exercises may help a person strengthen the muscles around the disk and improve mobility.

A doctor or physical therapist can help determine safe exercises for a person, depending on the position of the bulging disk. They may suggest gentle physical activities, such as yoga or walking.

Stretches for the back, neck, and legs might be another option that people can try at home to ease the pain. A person may also need to reach or maintain a moderate body weight to reduce pressure on the vertebrae.

Additionally, supporting the spine with protective equipment may ease symptoms of a bulging disk. For instance, a person could ensure their desk chair offers adequate lumbar support.

Some exercises may help relieve the symptoms of a bulging disk in the back, but people should check with a doctor or physical therapist first. Exercising in the wrong way may worsen any symptoms.

If any exercise makes the symptoms more severe, the person should stop.

The following are examples of exercises that may help with a disk bulge in the lower back:

Spinal decompression

  1. Find a parallel bar that is just higher than the person.
  2. Grab hold of the bar and let the body “hang” for 30 seconds.
  3. Repeat three times.

Cobra stretch

  1. Lie on your front on the floor, with the hands on the ground and just above shoulder level.
  2. Keeping the hips on the floor, raise the upper body, supporting it with the elbows.
  3. Hold for 10–15 seconds and slowly lower the upper body back to the floor.
  4. Gradually build up to 30 seconds and repeat ten times.

Cat-Cow stretch

  1. Begin on your hands and knees, with the hands directly under the shoulders, and the knees right under the hips.
  2. Breathing in slowly, draw the chest forward and the shoulder blades down the back body. Keep the neck long and hug the low belly in.
  3. Exhaling slowly, press the floor away, round the upper back, and gently release the head and neck.
  4. Repeat ten times.

Forearm plank

  1. Start by lying on a mat, face down, with the forearms on the mat.
  2. Using core strength, lift the body until you are resting on the forearms and toes.
  3. Hold for 20–30 seconds.
  4. Release slowly.
  5. Repeat five–ten times.

Knee hugs

  1. Lie on your back, with the knees bent and the feet on the floor.
  2. Grasp one knee with both hands and pull it toward the chest.
  3. Hold, release slowly, and repeat with the other leg.
  4. Repeat five times.

Back stretch

  1. Lie on your back, holding both knees toward the chest, with the sacrum on the floor.
  2. Move the head forward until there is a stretch across the lower back, but do not strain.
  3. Repeat five times.

Find exercises to help with a herniated disk here.

Bulging disks result from a change in the consistency of the gel in the disk center. A reduction in gel quality can cause the disk to become compressed and start to bulge.

The gel in the spinal disk naturally wears away over time. A bulging disk usually results from aging, but it can also be due to spinal injury, such as the result of a car accident. An injury could also cause symptoms to become more severe.

Other risk factors include:

  • engaging in some types of physical activity, especially if they involve repetitive movements
  • having a job that involves lifting heavy objects
  • having obesity or overweight
  • driving frequently
  • having a sedentary lifestyle with limited physical activity
  • smoking, as it may accelerate degeneration by reducing the oxygen supply to the disk

Preventing a bulging disk is not always possible, as disk gel naturally degrades over time. However, people can take the following steps to prevent a bulging disk from becoming severe:

  • reaching or maintaining a moderate body weight to reduce pressure on the vertebrae
  • keeping physically active to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine
  • staying flexible and taking breaks to stand and stretch when sitting for long periods
  • practicing proper posture to reduce stress on the spine

Practicing proper posture, exercising regularly, and following a balanced diet can often improve back pain without seeking medical help.

A person should, however, consult a healthcare professional if they have back pain that worsens over time or accompanies other symptoms, such problems with bowel or bladder control.

People experiencing severe back pain following trauma or physical exertion may also need to contact a doctor.

Bulging, or herniated, disks occur when the spongy center of a disk in the vertebrae pushes out through a tear in the outer, rubbery portion of the disk.

A common cause of bulging disks is aging. A bulging disk can push against the spinal cord and nerve roots, leading to severe pain and problems with mobility.

Treatment may include a combination of medication, physical therapy, and self-care.

In severe cases, a person may need surgery.