A bulging disc—a disc that protrudes outside the space it normally occupies—is a fairly common condition that usually results from normal wear and tear on your spine. The level of pain that accompanies a bulging disc varies from person to person. If you’re in a situation where the pain is present but tolerable, pairing conservative treatment options with the right kind of exercise can help minimize your pain, encourage healing, and provide a foundation for the future good health of your spine.1
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Safe Exercises For A Bulging Disc
Exercise in and of itself has not been shown to heal a bulging disc. What exercise can do is:
- Help decrease stress on the bulging disc, so the pain doesn’t worsen.
- Strengthen your leg, back, and core muscles (the muscles that attach to and help stabilize the spine and the pelvis), which increases spine stability and sets the stage for a better-functioning back.2
Be aware that the wrong kind of exercises can actually make your condition worse. In general, stay away from any kind of exercise that puts pressure on the affected joints and overexerts your abdominal muscles. This article describes five specific exercises to avoid if you have a bulging or slipped disc.
Safe exercises for a bulging disc include:
- Lie on your back. Gently pull one bent knee up to your chest and hold it for a few seconds. Slowly return the bent leg to the floor. Repeat with your other leg.
- Lie on your back with your legs straight. Gently pull your left leg across your body to the right side, while keeping left shoulder flat on the floor. Hold for a few seconds. Slowly bring your left leg back to lie flat. Repeat with other leg.
- Get down on the floor on all fours. Curve your spine toward ceiling, arching your back as high as you can (a “camel” position). Then do the opposite, pulling your spine toward the floor (a “cat” position). Continue alternating, holding for a few seconds each time.
Low-impact aerobic activities
Walking is an excellent choice for patients with bulging discs, as it stimulates blood flow and oxygen to the cells. It also helps to keep your discs hydrated, which is important for healing. Other good low-impact aerobic activities are swimming and cycling.3 If any of these low-impact aerobic activities increase your pain, we recommend stopping the activity and consulting with your doctor.
Something as basic as getting up and down from a chair can help strengthen your leg muscles. To turn this simple act into an exercise, pull a chair up to a table or another flat surface and hold the edge for stability. Move from a standing position to sitting, then back to standing. Repeat multiple times.
If you need more guidance on the types of exercises that are safe for a bulging disc, talk to your doctor.
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The Q&A below gives short answers to the most commonly asked questions about bulging discs, particularly in connection with exercise. For more in-depth information, scroll up to the preceding article, or click on the links within each answer below.
Can exercise help a bulging disc?
Yes, absolutely. Exercise in and of itself has not been shown to heal a bulging disc, but the right kind of exercise can help minimize your pain, encourage healing, and provide a foundation for the future good health of your spine. Exercises that strengthen your back and core—the muscles that attach to and help stabilize the spine and pelvis—in particular will decrease the stress on the bulging disc so the pain doesn’t worsen. They will also increase the stability of your spine, setting the stage for a better-functioning back.
Is it OK to exercise with a bulging disc?
Yes. Generally speaking, core and back exercises are beneficial for bulging discs, as are activities like walking, elliptical exercise, swimming, and riding a stationary or regular bike. Avoid heavy weight-lifting and long-distance running, especially at speed, because these types of activities could create more trouble for the disc. Any kind of exercise that puts pressure on the affected joints and overexerts your abdominal muscles (like situps and leg lifts, for example) should be avoided.
How long does it take to recover from a bulging disc?
Recovery time is variable, anywhere from two weeks to three months. Many bulging discs resolve on their own but sometimes they don’t, whether you’re pursuing conservative treatments or not. If you do have pain, it’s likely that it would subside before three months are up.
How do you treat a bulging disc?
Most spine surgeons think of bulging discs as benign, and they will not treat them at all if there is no pain. (Many people have bulging discs, but not all of them cause pain.) If you do have pain, there are numerous options for managing it while waiting to see if the condition will heal itself. Conservative treatments include rest, ice, medication, physical therapy and/or chiropractic care, acupuncture, and yoga. If the pain is still present after a few months, there may be a structural problem that requires surgery.4 Talk to your doctor to determine the specific course of action that’s best for you.
Can a bulging disc heal on its own?
Yes. The best-case scenario is your symptoms go away and you can return to normal activity. However, it’s important to note that, architecturally, the disc will never be as good as it was originally, and the condition could also happen again.
1 Lee, J. H., Choi, K. H., Kang, S., Kim, D. H., Kim, D. H., Kim, B. R., ... & Ryu, J. S. (2019). Non-surgical treatments for patients with radicular pain from lumbosacral disc herniation. The Spine Journal.
2 Rainville, J., Hartigan, C., Martinez, E., Limke, J., Jouve, C., & Finno, M. (2004). Exercise as a treatment for chronic low back pain. The Spine Journal, 4(1), 106-115.
3 Ariyoshi, M., Sonoda, K., Nagata, K., Mashima, T., Zenmyo, M., Paku, C., ... & Akashi, H. (1999). Efficacy of aquatic exercises for patients with low-back pain. The Kurume medical journal, 46(2), 91-96.
4 Postacchini, F. (1996). Results of surgery compared with conservative management for lumbar disc herniations. Spine, 21(11), 1383-1387.