Sports can have a great impact on the health and strength of the spine. While participating in sports regularly can help a person maintain a healthy weight and strengthen the muscles around the spine for added support, it can also cause damage to the spine from trauma or injury.

A bulging disc from sports is a somewhat common injury among athletes in high-impact activities such as football, lacrosse, hockey, rugby and even running. While running is not considered a high impact sport, the constant pounding of pavement can jar the spine and wear down the discs, causing a bulge or other disc damage.

Can you develop a bulging disc from playing sports?

A bulging disc from sports is one of the many injuries that can develop from years of playing high-impact sports. This is because the discs in the spine are made to withstand the normal, somewhat mild impact of daily activities, like walking, bending and lifting. High-impact sports wear down the discs in the spine faster than normal because the spine was not made to withstand years of hard tackles and quick twists, like those experienced during football or rugby.

Each disc in the spine is made of two main components: nucleus pulposus and annulus fibrosus. The nucleus pulposus is a soft, thick nucleus that allows the disc to bend and be fluid during compression from the surrounding vertebrae. The annulus fibrosus is a tough outer layer that covers the nucleus and helps hold the nucleus in place. Because the disc has to absorb the shock and impact of the spine, the annulus fibrosus has elasticity, which allows the disc to cushion the spine without breaking. This also allows the disc to return to the normal shape and height after the pressure from the surrounding vertebrae is released.

As the spine undergoes severe and continual impact from sports, the annulus fibrosus of each disc is constantly stretching and readjusting the discs to protect the vertebrae and joints in the spine. After some time, the elasticity of the disc’s outer layer will begin to wear down and stretch out — much like pulling a rubber band until it loses its shape. When this happens, the disc may begin to bulge on one or both sides, causing a bulging disc from sports.

How do you know if you have a bulging disc from playing sports?

Sometimes after a hard impact in sports, it’s difficult to tell what is just a temporary injury and what is more serious. This is especially true of athletes who are used to sustaining injuries. Many competitive athletes do not take the rest their bodies require after injuries in order to fully recover. Because of this, a football player, for example, may continue playing with a bulging disc and think the pain in his neck or back is only a muscle strain that will heal on its own. In this situation, continually playing with a bulging disc could make the condition worse.

Please note, if you experience paralysis, difficulty breathing or loss of bladder/bowel control, you need to seek immediate medical attention.

To avoid worsening a bulging disc from sports, you should allow your body to rest when needed and talk to your doctor if neck or back pain develops after a hard impact. If your doctor suspects you have a bulging disc from sports or any other spine condition, he or she will run a series of tests to give you an accurate diagnosis of what is causing your pain.

These diagnostic tests may include:

  • Questions about your pain and symptoms
  • Review of your medical history and current lifestyle
  • Physical exam with palpitations, which allows the doctor to identify the probable area of damage
  • Imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan

If your doctor confirms that you have a bulging disc from sports, you will likely be recommended a series of conservative treatment for pain relief and to allow your spine to heal.

Physical therapy and other conservative treatments for a bulging disc from sports

One of the most common conservative treatments for a bulging disc from sports is physical therapy. Physical therapy helps to strengthen the muscles around the spine. Reducing pressure on the bulging disc while simultaneously stretching the spine so everything is in proper alignment.

Other conservative treatments for a bulging disc from sports include:

  • Rest
  • Pain medication
  • Chiropractic care
  • Massage therapy
  • Yoga and stretching
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Corticosteroid injections

Next treatment steps

If physical therapy and other conservative treatments do not help relieve your neck or back pain after a few months, your doctor may recommend spine surgery. Be sure to ask about the possible risks and benefits of traditional open spine surgery compared to minimally invasive spine surgery so you can make an informed decision about your spine care needs.