Bulging Disc in the Lower Back: Causes and Treatment (2024)

A bulging disc in your lower back is most often caused by naturally occurring changes as you age. Most bulging discs don’t cause symptoms, but they may progress to become herniated discs.

Lower back pain is very common. Researchers estimate that 619 million people worldwide had lower back pain in 2020, with 843 million people estimated to experience lower back pain by 2050.

Problems with the discs in your lower back are a potential cause of lower back pain. This includes bulging discs.

Let’s explore what causes a bulging disc in your lower back. We’ll also cover symptoms to look out for and how a bulging disc is diagnosed and treated.

Bulging disc vs. herniated disc

Your intervertebral discs have two layers. The nucleus pulposus is the softer, jelly-like inner layer. It acts as a shock absorber, dispersing forces when you move. The annulus fibrosis is the tough outer layer that’s made of cartilage. It helps to support and protect the nucleus pulposus.

A bulging disc still has an intact annulus fibrosis. However, the disc itself has extended beyond the surrounding vertebrae and into the spinal canal. It can sometimes impinge on nerve roots or the spinal cord. A bulging disc may eventually progress to a herniated disc.

In a herniated disc, the annulus fibrosis is not intact and has ruptured. This allows the soft nucleus pulposus to leak into surrounding tissues.

There are a couple of potential causes of a bulging disc in your lower back. We explore these below.

Degenerative disc disease

Degenerative disc disease (DDD) is a common cause of bulging discs in your lower back. It occurs due to natural age-related wear and tear to your discs.

Generally speaking, discs undergo a variety of structural changes as we age. One of these is that they tend to dry out and contain less water, causing them to lose height and bulge outward.

The discs in your lower back, called the lumbar spine, are commonly affected by DDD. Researchers have estimated that 266 million people worldwide experience lumbar DDD each year.

Increasing age is one of the main risk factors for lumbar DDD. Genetics also play a significant role, with about 50–70% of DDD being caused by genetic inheritance. Other things that may accelerate the development of DDD include:

  • previous injuries
  • obesity
  • repetitive strain on your lower back, such as frequent heavy lifting, pulling, or bending
  • poor posture
  • sedentary lifestyle
  • smoking
  • socioeconomic factors

Injury

While bulging discs in your lower back most often happen due to DDD, it’s possible that an injury may cause them as well. This may occur due to things like a fall or a car collision.

Sports injuries can also often impact your lower back. The lumbar spine is a commonly injured site in many sports, such as American football, baseball, and dance.

Many people with a bulging disc in their lower back have no symptoms.

For example, an older 2015 study found that the prevalence of disc bulging was 30% in participants at age 20, increasing to 84% by age 80. None of these people had any symptoms.

However, it’s possible for a bulging disc to begin to press on nearby tissues, such as the nerve roots in your lumbar spine. This could lead to lower back pain that may:

  • range in severity from mild to severe
  • come and go
  • spread into your buttocks and thighs
  • become worse when you do certain motions, such as lifting or bending
  • cause weakness, numbness, or tingling in the legs, which can affect walking

Generally speaking, it’s important to see a doctor to discuss any lower back pain that’s persistent, recurring, or affects your daily activities.

However, there are some signs and symptoms that signal a medical emergency. Go to the nearest emergency room for any lower back pain that:

  • comes on suddenly
  • is severe
  • develops after a known injury
  • happens with a loss of sensation anywhere in your lower body or loss of strength in your legs
  • affects your ability to walk or stand on your own
  • occurs along with issues affecting bowel or bladder control

If you see a doctor for lower back pain, they’ll start by getting a medical history. They’ll ask about things like:

  • when your pain started and if anything may have triggered it
  • where specifically you feel pain
  • if you feel pain when you do specific movements

Your doctor will also perform a physical exam. They may also observe how you walk and test your reflexes and ability to feel sensations.

A straight leg raise test can help to determine if more severe bulging or a herniated disc is present. During this test, you lie on your back while your doctor lifts your leg. Feeling pain down your leg as this occurs can signal a disc issue.

Imaging allows your doctor to view your lumbar spine and is a vital part of detecting a bulging disc. X-rays, MRI scans, or CT scans may be used to help determine the location and severity of a bulging disc.

A bulging disc in your lower back may be treated with home remedies and over-the-counter (OTC) treatments or with medical treatment.

Home remedies and OTC treatment

Some of the potential home remedies for pain caused by a bulging disc in your lower back include:

  • using hot and cold therapy with a heating pad or a cold compress
  • staying active, but avoiding activities or motions that cause your pain to flare
  • trying to improve your posture
  • performing core strengthening exercises
  • taking steps to manage your weight if you have overweight or obesity
  • getting adequate, quality sleep at night
  • finding effective ways to ease stress, as stress may make pain sensations worse

You can also use OTC medications to alleviate lower back pain. Some options include acetaminophen (Tylenol) or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like:

  • ibuprofen (Motrin)
  • naproxen (Aleve)
  • aspirin

Medical treatment

If home remedies and OTC treatments don’t help with lower back pain due to your bulging disc, medical treatment may be recommended. This can include:

  • working with a physical therapist
  • receiving steroid injections
  • having a surgical procedure if other treatments aren’t effective

Below, we’ll answer some more frequently asked questions about bulging discs.

How bad is a bulging disc in your lower back?

A bulging disc in your lower back typically occurs due to natural changes that occur with aging and it often doesn’t cause symptoms. However, it’s possible for a bulging disc to progress to a herniated disc. This is a more serious condition that requires medical treatment.

Can a bulging disc go away on its own?

Because discs often bulge due to degenerative changes, they may not go away on their own. While many bulging discs are asymptomatic, several treatments are available to manage a bulging disc that’s causing pain.

Is walking good for a bulging disc?

Sedentary behavior can contribute to degenerative disc disease (DDD), so walking can be a gentle way to stay active if you have a bulging disc. The key is to keep exercise low impact so that you don’t aggravate your condition.

What are the signs a bulging disc is getting worse?

New or worsening symptoms can signal that a bulging disc is getting worse. Keep a lookout for pain that gets worse or radiates to your buttocks or thighs and feelings of weakness in your legs.

What is the best pain reliever for a bulging disc?

OTC pain relievers like acetaminophen and NSAIDs are often used to manage lower back pain due to a bulging disc. Steroid injections may be used to help with pain if OTC pain relievers aren’t effective. Always check with a doctor before starting OTC medications for a bulging disc.

A bulging disc in your lower back happens when a disc extends past the surrounding vertebrae. Unlike in a herniated disc, the strong outer layer of a bulging disc remains intact.

Most of the time, a bulging disc happens due to DDD, which occurs naturally as we age and may be greatly influenced by genetic factors. Repetitive motions, poor posture, and obesity also contribute to DDD.

Many bulging discs don’t cause symptoms. When symptoms occur, they can be treated with a combination of home remedies, OTC treatments, and medical treatments. It’s possible for a bulging disc to progress to a herniated disc.

Bulging Disc in the Lower Back: Causes and Treatment (2024)

FAQs

Bulging Disc in the Lower Back: Causes and Treatment? ›

The primary cause of bulging disks is aging. However, it can also occur after an injury. 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 OTC pain medication, physical therapy, and self-care.

What is the main cause of bulging discs? ›

The causes of a bulging disc are most often occur as a result of aging, which causes degeneration of the intervertebral disc or bulging disc in the cervical spine. Poor posture or slouching may lead to weekness of the posterior fibrocartilage of the spinal discs.

Is a bulging disc in lower back serious? ›

How bad is a bulging disc in your lower back? A bulging disc in your lower back typically occurs due to natural changes that occur with aging and it often doesn't cause symptoms. However, it's possible for a bulging disc to progress to a herniated disc. This is a more serious condition that requires medical treatment.

Can a bulging disc heal on its own? ›

A herniated disk is also known as a slipped, ruptured or bulging disk. It's one of the most common causes of neck, back and leg pain. Most of the time, herniated disks heal on their own or with simple home-care measures.

Is walking good for disc bulge? ›

Generally speaking—as long as they're performed correctly—core and back exercises are beneficial for bulging discs, as are activities like walking, elliptical exercise, swimming, and riding a stationary or regular bike.

Can you massage a bulging disc back into place? ›

Some people try to massage spinal discs and hope this will reduce pain and ease other symptoms that come with a bulging disc. However, the treatment of the disc's damages should be performed by an experienced doctor or physician. A spinal doctor can prepare a program to help you deal with pain.

What aggravates a bulging disc? ›

If the repeated forward bending stress continues, or the improper body mechanics continue, very often the inner disc material will continue to push backwards, causing the disc bulge to worsen, to herniate, progressing into the spinal canal and towards the spinal cord.

Can a chiropractor fix a bulging disc? ›

Chiropractic care will not reverse the herniation (only surgery can do that), but it can eliminate your painful symptoms so that surgery, drugs, and other treatment options become unnecessary.

What's the worst that can happen with a bulging disc? ›

What's the worst that can happen with a bulging disc? In severe cases, a bulging disc can result in the compression of nerves and potential loss of control over bowel and bladder functions.

What happens if a bulging disc goes untreated? ›

If a bulging disc is untreated, the symptoms will become worse as the constant pressure on the nerve intensifies the sensations. This can also cause issues with walking, and even while holding objects, as the pressure impedes the ability of the nerves to transmit information properly.

Do you need surgery for a bulging disc in lower back? ›

For symptoms that have lasted at least 6 weeks and that make it hard to do your normal activities, surgery is an option when other treatments haven't helped. Over the long term, surgery and non-surgical treatments work about the same to reduce pain and other symptoms.

Is a bulging disc a big deal? ›

Cervical bulging discs can also lead to myelopathy, injury to the spinal cord, which can cause a group of symptoms such as difficulty walking, loss of fine motor skills, and heaviness in the legs.

What is the fastest way to heal a bulging disc? ›

The best way to foster healing in these cases is to rest, avoid activities that cause pain, and take over-the-counter pain killers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve symptoms. During your home treatment, you can also: Alternate applying heat and cold. Stay as active as you can.

Can MRI show bulging disc? ›

An MRI offers visual confirmation of the bulging disc, taking detailed images of any part of the body that make up the spinal column and the spinal discs in between the vertebrae.

Is a heating pad good for slipped discs? ›

Using a heating pad or compress before activity or exercise will help relax muscle tension and increase blood flow to the affected area. If you work in a job that requires you to frequently bend or twist, this could worsen the herniated disc so applying heat throughout the day may help.

Can a bulging disc go back into place? ›

Treatment Options

Non-surgical treatments can include physical therapy or bracing to try and gradually ease the bulging disc back into its rightful place. When these conservative options fail, and there is still a lot of pain, a minimally invasive surgical procedure can be used to correct the bulging disc.

Can you reverse a bulging disc without surgery? ›

Will a Herniated Disc Heal on Its Own? In some cases, surgery may be required to fix a herniated disc. However, bulging discs more often heal on their own over time, and surgery isn't needed. Your doctor can perform a neurological exam to test your muscle strength, reflexes, and walking ability.

Can you naturally fix a bulging disc? ›

Can you naturally fix a bulging disc? One can naturally correct a bulging disc by taking ample rest to reduce strain on the spine and participating in physical therapy and stretching exercises to improve mobility of the spinal region.

References

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