How to Get Quick Relief for a Bulging Disk

Millions of Americans suffer low back problems related to the protective disks of cartilage and tissue that act as padding for our spinal cord.  When one of these disks is injured, the muscles surrounding that disk clench up.  This intense muscle contraction is our body's way of saying, "Hey, I'm hurt here. Pay attention." Most people get the message and start looking for pain relief fast.

Bulging Disk vs. Herniated Disk

The terms "bulging disk" and "herniated disk" are often used to describe two different problems that cause back pain. Think of your spine as a group of building blocks (individual vertebra) stacked one on top of each other.  A hole in between each block (vertebra) lines up precisely with the hole in the blocks above and below it.  This hole (spinal column) houses our spinal cord, the nerves and tissues that send messages from our brain through our body.  Protective pads called disks separate each vertebra.  This is what keeps our vertebra flexible, mobile and prevents disk-on-disk injury.  When the disk breaks or cracks, usually from an acute injury, the nerves and tissue contained inside the spinal cord can leak out.  This is called a herniated, ruptured or slipped disk and is best treated by a doctor.

Bulging disks are far more common and are often caused by plain old wear and tear. Neurologist, Jerry Swanson M.D. explains: A bulging disk simply extends outside the space it should normally occupy. The bulge typically affects a large portion of the disk, so it may look a little like a hamburger that's too big for its' bun. The National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke state thataAs discs degenerate and weaken, cartilage can bulge or be pushed into the space containing the spinal cord or a nerve root, causing pain. Studies have shown that most herniated discs occur in the lower, lumbar portion of the spinal column.

Many people with bulging disks have no pain, but some experience sudden back pain; especially if they've done something to irritate the disk, like lifting something too heavy.

What do you do to get fast relief? 

1. Rest. As soon as you feel acute pain, stop what you're doing and avoid further injury. Bed rest may be required, but limit it to two days maximum.  Any longer can weaken back muscles and reduce circulation.

2. Anti-inflammatory medication. Take ibuprofen, aspirin or naproxen as soon as possible and on a regular schedule to decrease inflammation and pain. 

3. Ice. Apply ice or cold compresses to the affected area for twenty minutes at a time several times per day to reduce inflammation.

4. Heat. Don't use heat immediately after injury.  After two or three days, apply heat with a heating pad, hot water bottle, heat lamp or warm bath for brief periods of time to relax muscles and increase circulation.

5. Exercise. Once the worst of the pain has healed, talk to a chiropractor, medical doctor or physical therapist about safe exercises to stretch and strengthen back muscles and prevent future injury.

If at-home treatment isn't working or you have pain radiating down your leg, numbness, tingling, or any other symptoms, call your doctor or visit the emergency room.  Your doctor may order x-rays, MRI or other diagnostic tests and prescribe other pain or muscle relaxing medications and physical therapy.  Once your back feels better, make an appointment with a fitness expert to design a back-safe exercise program to strengthen muscles supporting your disks.


National Institutes of Neurologic Disorders and Stroke

Low Back Pain Fact Sheet