Disc bulge: what you need to know

Some bulges are good. A bulging wallet means you’re flush with cash. A bulging suitcase means you’re off on holiday. Bulging muscles mean your workouts have paid off. 

A bulging disc, on the other hand, is not good news. It might be caused by age-related degeneration or by trauma, but it can cause uncomfortable symptoms. So, what’s going on?

What is a disc?

You have 23 discs in your spine. They’re like small, rubbery cushions that sit between the bony building blocks (vertebrae) of your spine. Each disc has a soft, jelly-ish centre (nucleus) surrounded by a thick elastic coating (annulus). 

Your discs do several important jobs, including:

  • Absorbing shock 
  • Allowing movement without sacrificing too much strength
  • Protecting the nerves that run throughout your spine.

What’s a bulging disc?

Well, it’s the bad kind of bulge. 

A disc may degenerate with age or trauma, bulging beyond its usual boundaries, a bit like a burger that’s too big for its bun. It’s also known as a protruding disc. Some people refer to them as slipped discs, but this is an unhelpful term, because your discs never really slip. Even with a bulging disc, your spine remains stable and is capable of a majority of its functions. In fact, many people have bulging discs naturally, without pain. Some bulges just can’t be helped! 

A bulging disc is not the same as a herniated disc. In a bulging disc, the disc itself remains intact, but is spreading beyond its usual place. Visualise it a bit like your stomach after a heavy meal. 

A herniated disc goes a step further. The disc tears and its nucleus (disc centre) leaks out through the annulus (outer coating). This still isn’t necessarily cause for panic, a proper assessment is still required to know the impact and severity.

Who’s at risk of a bulging disc?

You’re more likely to develop disc problems if you:

  • Are obese 
  • Are unfit or don’t exercise regularly
  • Have poor posture
  • Smoke
  • Lift heavy loads
  • Are getting older. 

Symptoms of a bulging disc

If you’ve developed a bulging disc, you may notice symptoms such as back pain that gets worse when you:

  • Bend
  • Sit for a long period
  • Cough, sneeze, laugh or strain. 

If the disc is impacting a nearby nerve, you may experience pain in your extremities (like arms or legs) and this is called radicular pain. If your nerve is a little more impacted and upset, you may develop pins and needles or numbness in your arms or legs; this is called radiculopathy. Sometimes radiculopathy can progress to weakness of the muscles and diminished reflexes. If you experience these symptoms, you should book into physiotherapy or a medical practitioner as a matter of urgency. If in doubt, call 000.

Treatment options for a bulging disc

Your physiotherapist will work with you to develop a treatment plan for your bulging disc that may include:

  • Encouraging your body’s natural healing processes
  • Managing pain using medications, dry needling, soft tissue massage or taping
  • Prescribing bulging disc exercises to strengthen your lower abdominal and core muscles which help to stabilise your back
  • Stretches and remedial massage 
  • Preventing further problems through a biomechanical assessment, ongoing core work, and regular gentle exercise like swimming. 
  • If required, referring you to the right specialist medical practitioner

How Sycamore Health can help

Usually, it’s pain that brings you to the physiotherapist, from this point we begin a thorough investigation of your symptoms to help form the right diagnosis. 

To reassure you, a vague symptom like ‘back pain’ does not automatically mean you have a bulging disc. 

Your back is a marvellously complex structure with many bones, nerves, discs and supporting muscles. Back pain therefore has numerous potential causes, which is why you need a skilled therapist to investigate, diagnose and treat it. 

We promise you that thorough attention at Sycamore Health. We’ll help you to:

  • Understand what’s causing your pain (which may or may not be due to a bulging disc) 
  • Understand how to help your body’s natural healing processes
  • Improve your core strength to better support your back
  • Address any areas of deficit or biomechanical imbalance to prevent further problems developing. 

If you need our kind of help, please book an appointment.

All information is general in nature. Patients should consider their own personal circumstances and seek a second opinion.

Scroll to Top