Bulging and herniated discs tend to happen as a completely normal part of aging. While some can be caused by poor posture and movement patterns or injury to the spine, most cases are just what happens as we get older. A bulging disc occurs when the entire disc “bulges” out of its normal space. A herniated disc is when the outer portion of the disc thins and allows part of the inner structure of the disc to push out of the normal disc space. These conditions don’t necessarily translate into a painful or even noticeable condition, but if it does, patients can experience pain, numbness, and tingling within the low back, hip, and down the leg as well as a loss of range of motion depending on the nerve(s) being compressed.
The key to treatment is to take the pressure off of the nerve, since that’s what’s causing the pain. Learning movements and positioning patterns to take that pressure off ASAP is important as well as learning new ways of moving that can prevent that nerve pressure from being applied by the disc again. Here are a few things that you can do to help with the condition.
Mobilization of certain muscle groups and joints can help strengthen the weak muscles that are allowing the abnormal movements of the spine, and gently push structures back into normal alignment. Doing these daily can be extremely helpful when it comes to taking the pressure off of your discs. These include…
Start on your hands and knees with your wrists directly under your shoulders. Inhale and drop your abdomen and tilt your pelvis so your tailbone points up, while arching your back and extending your neck to look up. Exhale and round your back, tilting your pelvis forward and drawing your stomach in. Repeat with each inhale and exhale for 5-10 breaths.
Lying on your stomach, prop up on your elbows, allowing your back to sway and your abdomen and hips to remain on the floor. If this is comfortable, increase the movement by placing your hands underneath your shoulders and pressing up slowly, lifting your shoulders and chest up off the floor while your hips remain grounded. Lift as high as you can without pain (although you may feel a little pressure in the low back), hold for 10-20 seconds and release back down. Repeat this 10-15 times.
The muscles of the abdomen, the low back, and the sides, are all considered your core. Weakness in these areas can lead to multiple issues, including an increased risk of disc conditions, and strengthening them can thereby decrease your risk of developing or exacerbating them. While many people may immediately think of crunches and sit-ups for core exercises, these can actually be quite irritating for many people with a bulging or herniated disc. Try these instead:
Start in a pushup position, facedown with your toes on the floor. You can either rest your forearms on the floor or place your hands directly under your shoulders. Hold this position for 10-15 seconds with your abdomen engaged and your body forming a straight line from your feet to your head. Release and repeat 5 times.
Lie face down on the floor with your legs straight and your arms reaching overhead. All at once, lift your legs and arms up and activate your back to hold them there for 10 seconds. Slowly release back down to the floor and repeat 5-10 times.
Low-Impact Aerobic Activities
Low-impact exercises such as walking, swimming, and cycling have been shown to be some of the most beneficial exercises for a variety of back pain causes, including those associated with conditions of the discs. Walking can gently work a variety of muscles throughout the legs, hips, and back stimulating blood flow to the cells, which can decrease inflammation and aid in healing. The very slight compression the discs experienced with each movement also stimulated the discs to remain hydrated and can make them stronger.
Of course, every person’s body is different and it’s imperative that you speak with your doctor and/or physical therapist before attempting any new exercises. If you notice an increase in pain with any exercise or mobilization, stop. These are meant to help decrease your pain, not make it worse.