Neck pain is a common ailment that can derail physical activity and make daily activities difficult to perform.
For some people, the pain is temporary and only causes minor disruptions in their life. But for others, neck pain can be a result of a more serious condition, such as a bulging disc, that requires a specific treatment plan to feel relief.
“A bulging disc happens when the vertebral disc, located in between two spinal vertebrae, is compressed and causes the disc to be pushed out of its normal placement,” explained Grayson Wickham, PT, DPT, CSCS, founder of Movement Vault. The disc usually protrudes out of the back of the spine, either on the right or left side.
A variety of treatment options exist for a bulging disc, including exercises you can do at home. Here are five expert-approved moves you can do for a bulging disc.
“This exercise targets the deep neck flexors, as well as causing your neck vertebrae to move into extension,” said Wickham. Over time, this can help reduce pain and improve neck strength.
- Sit up tall as if you had a string attached to the top of your head. Make sure your neck is straight.
- Gently push your head backward. This will cause your chin to tuck, making a double chin. You should feel the muscles underneath your chin activating.
- Do 10 repetitions, 10 times per day.
“A lot of times, people are afraid to move when they have a disc injury, but this exercise helps activate your neck muscles and prove to your body that it’s OK to move,” said Wickham.
- Start on your hands and knees or on an exercise ball.
- Arch your neck upward as far as is comfortable and pain-free.
- Hold in this position for 3 seconds, then come back to the starting position, which is a straight neck.
- Do 10 repetitions, 10 times a day.
This joint mobilization targets the individual cervical vertebrae joints and the discs between the joints. “Light neck mobilizations like this have been shown to decrease pain and increase neck movement over time,” explained Wickham.
- Place a rolled-up towel behind the back of your neck.
- Grab both ends of the towel, and take up any slack in the towel.
- Gently pull forward with your hands while performing a chin tuck.
- Come back to the starting position and repeat.
- Do 10 repetitions, 3 times per day.
“This stretch can help loosen the upper trapezius muscle, which often gets tight when you have neck pain,” says Dr. Farah Hameed, assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Medical Center.
- Seated or standing, slowly tilt your head in order to bring your ear close to your shoulder.
- Hold gently for 10 to 20 seconds.
- Switch to the other side and hold for 10 to 20 seconds.
- If you’re not feeling much of a stretch, you can gently use your hand to pull your head further to the side.
- Do 2 sets — both sides is 1 set — 2 to 3 times per day.
“Poor posture and rounding of your shoulders forward can also increase the pressure on disc bulges, which can lead to pain,” explained Hameed.
“A scapular setting stretch can increase the stretch in the front of your chest, improve your overall alignment, and bring your shoulder blades backward in a better position to help relax your neck muscles,” she added.
- Seated or standing, place your fingers on your shoulders.
- Roll your shoulders back and glide your shoulder blades down and together at the back with your elbows bent, as though you’re trying to place them down and back toward your back pocket.
- Hold this posture for 10 seconds.
- Repeat this exercise several times throughout the day, especially if you’ve been sitting for a while.
Performing stretches and exercises designed specifically for rehab purposes are an excellent way to target your neck and the surrounding areas. That said, there are exercises you should avoid when you’re dealing with a bulging disc in the neck.
Wickham says some common movements and stretches to stay away from include any movement that applies pressure to your neck, and any movement or stretch where your neck is flexed significantly.
“If you’re experiencing pain from a bulging disc in the neck, you should avoid heavy weight lifting, especially anything overhead, until a physician has evaluated you.”
— Dr. Farah Hameed, assistant professor of rehabilitation and regenerative medicine at Columbia University Medical Center
You should also avoid exercises or positions that may put direct pressure on the neck, such as headstands and shoulderstands in yoga.
Lastly, Hameed says to avoid high impact exercises such as jumping and running. Anything that may cause you to do sudden sharp movements may aggravate pain from a bulging disc.
As always, if a particular movement increases your pain or exacerbates your symptoms, stop doing it, and talk with a doctor or physical therapist for alternative exercises.
In addition to any stretches or exercises you’re performing on your own, your doctor may also recommend taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, to help ease pain and inflammation.
Treatment may also include weekly visits with a physical therapist who can use a combination of stretches, muscle activation techniques, and hands-on manual therapy.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, in more serious cases, a cortisone injection in the spine can provide relief.
“There are cases where the herniation is severe enough in which surgery is warranted, but in almost all cases, it is best to try physical therapy before getting surgery,” said Wickham.
If you’re already under a doctor’s care for a bulging disc, they’ll likely have steps for you to follow for return visits. But in general, some red flags indicate it may be time to make an appointment sooner rather than later.
“If your symptoms do not get any better in 1 to 2 weeks or you have moderate to severe numbness, tingling, or burning sensations in your neck shoulders, arms, or hands, you should see a doctor,” said Wickham.
Because there’s a close relationship in the spine of the discs and spinal nerve roots and spinal cord, Hameed says having any neurologic symptoms — such as persistent numbness, tingling, or weakness in your arms — warrants a trip to your physician to undergo an evaluation and physical examination.
Additionally, if you experience any of the following signs of cord compression, you should see a physician for urgent evaluation:
- balance disturbance
- clumsiness with the use of your hands
- bowel or bladder changes
- numbness and tingling in your abdomen and legs
Treating a bulging disc in a timely manner is critical, especially since discs can eventually rupture. Performing the exercises and stretches listed above is a great place to start.
A doctor or physical therapist can assist you with developing a more comprehensive exercise program to help manage any pain you may feel in your neck and strengthen the muscles in the surrounding areas.