Running with Bulging Disc: Tips for Safe Exercise & Pain Relief

Wondering if it’s safe to engage in running with a bulging disc? In general, any exercise that doesn't exacerbate your pain is safe. This article explores how running with a bulging disc impacts your body, shares tips for safe running, and offers exercises to manage pain. We’ll help you make informed decisions to stay active without worsening your condition.

Understanding what a bulging disc is

The spine is made up of vertebrae (bones) and discs (cushioning pads between the bones). A bulging disc is when the external layer of a spinal disc has a weak spot and the inner core of the disc starts to push outwards – a bit like the way a balloon would bulge if you squeezed it.

As we age, we naturally begin to show some signs of ageing, and this can make us more prone to a bulge. This ageing is sometimes called "disc degeneration." One study found that in asymptomatic individuals, these signs of ageing affected 37% of those aged 20, up to 96% of those aged 80, with a large increase in the prevalence through 50 years1. Although this might sound alarming, note that this study was of asymptomatic individuals. That means people who did not experience pain or other symptoms! So, signs of ageing don't doom us to back pain. They're no more ominous than gray hair.

Can you still be active with a bulging disc?

In short, the answer is yes! While back pain from a bulging disc can be scary, complete rest usually is not the answer. In fact, gentle exercise can be very beneficial for your spine. Here's why:

  • Gradual exercise promotes healing: When done slowly and carefully, exercise helps deliver nutrients to your spinal discs through improved blood flow, which can aid healing.
  • Low-impact activities strengthen your body: Exercises like walking, swimming, or cycling are easy on your back while strengthening the muscles that support your spine and the rest of your body. This can reduce pain and improve your overall health and wellbeing.
  • Increased flexibility means less stiffness: Gentle movement can help loosen up tight muscles around your spine, leading to better flexibility and a wider range of motion.

This doesn’t mean you should jump straight back into your normal workout routine. You need to listen to your body, start slow and consult a healthcare professional to create a safe and effective exercise plan for you.

Is it good to run with a bulging disc?

Engaging in a running routine with a bulging disc can sometimes aggravate the condition due to the continual stress, potentially causing inflammation. For individuals diagnosed with bulging discs, healthcare experts often discourage participation in high-impact activities such as jogging or running since these could exacerbate the issue as in some cases, it can progress from a bulging disc to a herniated disc. So check with your doctor to confirm what's best for you.

What exercises are safe for a bulging disc?

Low-impact exercises such as Pilates, yoga, and swimming are good for managing bulging disc symptoms. These exercises give you the benefits of exercise and improve flexibility, without putting too much stress on your back2.

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Impact of running on bulging discs

Running, with its repetitive and high-impact characteristics, can significantly impact a bulging disc because the continual strain and pressure may irritate the disc. If you find that your symptoms begin to worsen, especially if they progress to symptoms associated with sciatica pain (which include leg pain, numbness, and weakness), speak with your physician.

Safe running practices with a bulging disc

Running with a bulging disc can be safer if you take the right precautions. Running on softer surfaces including grass, or softer trails and tracks, and running more slowly can reduce the impact on your joints and spine.

Choosing low-impact surfaces

Exercising on surfaces like grass or woodland paths can greatly reduce the spine and nerve root irritation, which is often worsened by running on hard surfaces like concrete. The natural cushioning of grass provides an ideal balance of softness and support, minimizing strain on the spine.

Woodland trails offer a gentle impact on your legs and are often located in scenic areas, making jogging more enjoyable and encouraging regular exercise. Running on sandy landscapes also offers a cushioning effect that reduces stress on joints, providing another beneficial option for maintaining a healthy exercise routine.

Incorporating cross training & other low-impact exercises

Using a cross-trainer or elliptical is a great way to ease back into running by simulating the same movement without high impact.

Recommended low-impact workouts include practices such as:

  • Pilates
  • yoga
  • swimming.

Engaging in these exercises can help control symptoms and enhance overall physical health without exerting undue pressure on the spine2.

Strengthening & rehabilitation exercises

Strength training exercises, such as those that target your legs, back, or core muscles, are also important for your overall health and managing bulging disc symptoms. Maintaining balance of strength and flexibility that reduces stress on spinal discs. As mentioned above, it is a common myth that you should stop all physical activity when you have back pain. Gentle exercise can actually promote spinal health.

By integrating core strengthening routines, total body strength training, and flexibility-enhancing stretches into your workout regimen, you not only alleviate discomfort but also safeguard against potential future injuries to the discs. These forms of exercise play a crucial role in supporting your spine and enhancing your overall wellbeing as part of your regular fitness routine.

Treatment options for bulging discs

For most runners with bulging discs, non surgical approach is the first line of defense, and discs usually heal themselves within a couple of months.

Physical therapy can strengthen your body and improve flexibility so running will be safer in the future. Anti-inflammatory medication and activity modification can also help manage pain and inflammation.

If these conservative measures don't provide sufficient relief, your doctor may consider minimally invasive procedures such as cortisone injections or nerve blocks to target specific areas of pain. Surgery, such as spinal fusion or disc replacement, is typically considered a last resort and is recommended only after all other options have been exhausted.

Physical therapy

Undergoing physical therapy is an effective nonsurgical method for treating a bulging disc. This treatment often incorporates stretching, massage therapy, and both heat and ice therapies to enhance functionality and diminish pain.

When symptoms are severe or progressive, it’s advisable to explore physical therapy options. A skilled physical therapist can craft a tailored regimen consisting of appropriate exercises designed to minimize spinal pressure and facilitate recovery.

Returning to running after recovery

When recovering from a bulging disc injury, it's crucial to have a strategic plan before resuming running. Start with short distances and a slow pace, gradually increasing the intensity and duration of your runs to avoid putting too much strain on the healing disc.

Pay close attention to any signs of pain or discomfort during and after your run to prevent further injury. Following a balanced fitness routine that avoids activities that stress the affected joints can help reduce the risk of re-injury.

Gradual reintroduction

Beginning at a slow pace and gradually escalating both the distance and intensity of running allows your body to adjust while minimizing the risk of aggravating an existing injury. Once you’ve built up fitness on a cross-trainer, add one running session to your routine.

Monitoring symptoms

It’s crucial to monitor symptoms closely to prevent making the pain worse. If you feel back or leg pain that’s not because of muscle soreness, scale back on the duration or intensity of your activity.

If you start to feel symptoms, making changes to how you run – like changing your running technique or stride – might be necessary to reduce stress on your spine.

Preventing recurrence

To reduce the risk of recurrence, you need to have a varied exercise routine that includes cross-training exercises to prevent repetitive stress.

In pursuit of sustained wellness, steering clear of activities that exert excessive force on impacted joints and overly tax the abdominal muscles is essential.

More information

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