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Top exercises in 2021 for disc bulges

September 3rd, 2021 by
Category: Disc bulge Spinal Health

image of health professional referring to a bulging disc on a spinal prop

What is a bulging disc?

Intervertebral discs have a thick outer layer (annulus) that surrounds the soft gel-like centre (Nucleus). This sits in between your vertebrae and acts as a shock absorber for when you walk, run or jump. A bulging disc or herniated disc is when the disc starts to protrude out. The soft gel-like centre pushes through the outer ring. This puts pressure on the spinal cord and nearby nerve roots. This can also cause inflammation in the area. When this process happens (the nerve roots becoming irritated), it can cause numbness and tingling down the lower or upper limb on one side and/or weakness in your legs. This is commonly known as sciatica.

Where do bulging discs commonly occur?

Disc bulges can occur anywhere along the spine, but most often occurs in the lower back (lumbar spine). However, they can also occur in the neck (cervical spine).

What causes a bulging disc?

A bulging disc most often occurs from age-related wear and tear on the spine. This is often called disc degeneration. As people age, the disc in between the bones decreases, becomes less flexible and weakens. The disc, therefore, begins to shrink and the spaces between the vertebrae become more narrow, leading the disc to be more prone to tearing or rupturing. Bulging discs can also be due to repetitive stresses to the spine overtime. It is most common to see males ages between 20-50 with a herniated/disc bulge.

Other causes of disc bulges include:

  • A traumatic event, such as a fall or motor vehicle accident 
  • Lifting something incorrectly/improper and repetitive heavy lifting. Using your back to bend over and lift something heavy can cause a disc bulge.
  • Weight. Increase weight gain can cause more pressure and stress on the discs in your lower back.
  • Repetitive activities that strain your spine. Constant lifting, pulling, bending or twisting can add a lot of stress to your spine, affecting your discs.
  • Frequent long drives or a sedentary lifestyle can put pressure in your back, compressing your discs, especially in the lower back.
  • Smoking can lessen the oxygen supply to the discs and cause faster degeneration to occur in your spine.

What are the signs and symptoms of a bulging disc?

Symptoms of a bulging disc can include:

  • Numbness and tingling down the upper or lower limbs (for example, the arms or legs) 
  • Sharp or stabbing pain in the spine that refers down the upper or lower limbs
  • Sciatica. Shooting pain down the upper or lower limbs, generally affects only one side
  • Weakness in the leg and/or foot on one side. This can cause difficulty with walking.
  • Loss of bowel and bladder control. This is extremely rare, but if this occurs it is a condition called Cauda Equina Syndrome. This condition is caused by spinal nerve roots being compressed in the lower back, cutting off sensation and movement. This requires immediate medical attention
  • Restricted trunk flexion 
  • Constant lower back or neck pain. 
  • Pain that can last up to anywhere between days or weeks

What exercises should you avoid if you have a bulging disc?

  • You should avoid heavy lifting of weights/deadlifting. This adds more pressure to the intervertebral discs.
  • Sit-ups or crunches. Repetitive bending and pulling of the neck will cause more aggravation to the disc bulge.
  • Running or jumping types of exercises, these cause repeated stress and force on the spine.
  • Stretching exercises (stretches that involve bending at the waist, twisting or turning), this places a lot of pressure and stress on the inflamed bulging disc. 

Top exercises in 2021 for bulging discs

1. Prone lumbar extension/half cobra pose
half cobra pose stretch infographic

How to perform this exercise:

  • Firstly, lay on your stomach on a flat surface and then slowly prop yourself up onto your elbows while keeping your hips in contact with the floor. 
  • Hold this position for 5-10 seconds 
  • Gradually build up the hold for 30 seconds. 
  • Aim for 6-12 repetitions. 
  • Make sure you perform this slowly and carefully.

How this exercise helps 

  • Relieves pressure on the herniated disc by opening the intervertebral disc spaces.
  • Helps pushes the disc bulge back towards the centre more, helping to alleviate some pain in the lower back.

2. Full prone extension/full cobra pose (more advanced stretch)

full cobra post infographic

How to perform this exercise:

  • Firstly, lay on your stomach on a flat surface and then slowly press up on your hands while keeping your hips in contact with the floor and lower back relaxed.
  • Hold this position for 5-10 seconds 
  • Gradually build up the hold for 30 seconds. 
  • Aim for 6-12 repetitions. 
  • Make sure you perform this slowly and carefully.

How this exercise helps

  • Relieves pressure on the herniated disc by opening the intervertebral disc spaces. 
  • Helps pushes more of the disc bulge back towards the centre more, helping to alleviate some pain in the lower back.

3. Spinal decompression

spinal decompression infographic

How to perform this exercise

  • Use a pull up bar or the top of a door (something you can hang down from) and allow your body to just hang down. 
  • Hold for 30 seconds and for 2 sets 
  • Release slowly from this position. Do not jump straight down (you can use a stool/chair underneath your feet to stand back on) 

How this exercise helps

  • Opens up the intervertebral spaces, taking some pressure of the bulging disc. Therefore, decreases pain intensity and quicker recovery. 

4. Cat/cow exercise

cat cow exercise infographic

How to perform this exercise

  • Go on your hands and knees (all four position). Inhale and let your stomach drop towards the floor while looking up with your head. Then exhale and slowly round your spine while pressing into the floor with your hands whilst bringing your chin to your chest 
  • Aim for 10-12 repetitions, 2-3 sets.

How this exercise helps

  • Relieves pressure on the herniated disc by opening the intervertebral disc spaces. 
  • Helps improve mobility of the whole spine.

Please stop any of these exercises if they cause any increase or type of pain in the back.  

It is also important to have relative amount of rest to help decrease the intensity and severity of the pain caused by a disc bulge. 

Disc bulges/herniations may get better on their own with relative rest within a couple of days and completely resolve between 4-6 weeks. However, it is important to prevent this from occurring by getting your spine checked by a Chiropractor to help prevent wear and tear from happening too quickly in your spine. Spinal health is important to maintain. A Chiropractor will be able to assess your spine thoroughly to see if there are any signs of joint restrictions that may impact your intervertebral disc spaces, and may also send you for x-rays to see how healthy your disc spaces are. Chiropractors see many cases of disc bulges and are able to give you appropriate advice on what to do to help alleviate the pain conservatively. If unable to do so, we will refer you to the most appropriate health professional for further investigation if needed. 

Article written by Dr. Mymy Quach (Chiropractor)

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