For many people diagnosed with a bulging disc, there is often a lingering question of how this condition developed, especially if there was no sudden injury to cause damage to the spine. While injury is one way to develop a bulging disc, a more common way to develop a bulging disc is from weight.

A bulging disc from weight is classified as a degenerative spine condition, which means it gradually develops over time as the components of the spine wear down. While some factors of developing a degenerative spine condition, such as age and genetics, are unavoidable, there are other factors, such as weight, that can be controlled to help prevent or postpone the development of a bulging disc.

How does a bulging disc from weight gain develop?

Weight plays an important role in spine health. The spine is designed to support and stabilize the body; this is specifically true in the lumbar spine (lower back), which has the responsibility of supporting the majority of the body’s weight and movements. If the body is carrying more weight than is recommended, the spine endures more pressure than it was designed to support, which can lead to the compression of discs and potentially the development of a bulging disc.

A bulging disc from weight often develops in the lower back because of the lumbar spine’s responsibility to support most of the body’s weight. The discs in the spine are meant to cushion the vertebrae and protect the components of the spine from compression and impact. In order to do this, the outer layer of each disc is made of a tough, elastic fiber, with a nucleus composed of a thick gel-like substance. These two components allow each disc to absorb compression in the spine without tearing or losing shape. However, over time, the elasticity in the disc’s outer layer may stretch out and lose form, allowing the disc to bulge.

Specifically, a bulging disc caused from weight is a disc that has lost its elasticity due to the increased pressure on the spine from years of weight gain. Added weight on the spine means added pressure on the discs and vertebrae, causing them to wear down faster than normal. Fortunately, there are certain steps you can take to help prevent a bulging disc from weight and treat a bulging disc from weight if it has already developed.

Preventing a bulging disc from weight gain

The best way to help prevent a bulging disc from weight is to maintain a healthy weight and strengthen the muscles surrounding your spine. These core muscles help support the spine and aid in carrying some of the body’s weight to reduce pressure on the discs and vertebrae, especially in the lower back.

Weight is not the only risk factor for developing a degenerative bulging disc, but it is one of the main factors that can be controlled. Other factors include:

  • Genetics
  • Age
  • Alcohol and tobacco consumption
  • Daily activity

If you have already developed a bulging disc from weight, the first treatment your doctor may recommend is physical therapy and lifestyle changes to help reduce your weight and the pressure on your spine. Physical therapy can help you find low-impact exercise that work to strengthen your core muscles and help you lose weight without irritating the bulging disc in your spine.

Common low-impact exercises to help treat a bulging disc from weight gain include:

  • Walking
  • Sit ups
  • Leg raises
  • Hip/pelvic raises

These exercises should always be recommended and (if necessary) monitored by a physical therapist to ensure your health and safety.

In conjunction with low-impact exercises, your doctor may recommend a series of lifestyle changes to help you lose weight and relieve pressure on your spine. These lifestyle recommendations may include:

  • Nutrition plan (diet)
  • Exercise plan
  • Limiting alcohol consumption
  • Eliminating tobacco use

You should always consult your doctor before beginning or changing any treatment program to help reduce your risk of injury or harm. Your doctor is able to recommend certain treatments based on your current lifestyle and medical history to help ensure your safety.

Surgery for a bulging disc from weight gain

If you have already developed a bulging disc from weight gain and the conservative treatments your doctor recommended have not been effective, spine surgery might then become an option. There are many types of spine surgery for a bulging disc, so be sure to ask your doctor questions and research your options so you can make an informed decision about your treatment.

One type of spine surgery for a bulging disc is traditional open back surgery. Often performed in a hospital setting, this type of procedure either removes part of the bulging disc or the entire disc with a discectomy surgery, sometimes accompanied by a fusion. If a fusion is necessary, a small metal cage is often inserted around the bulging disc to support the two surrounding vertebrae and reduce pressure on the pinched nerve. This metal cage is held in place with small screws and rods to fuse that section of the spine together.

Another type of spine surgery for a bulging disc is minimally invasive spine surgery. This type of procedure was introduced after traditional open back surgery and has several proven advantages over traditional surgery, such as a smaller incision, shorter recovery time and lower risk of complication after surgery. Similar to a traditional open back surgery, a minimally invasive discectomy removes a small piece of the bulging disc, while a fusion (or stabilization) removes the entire disc. However, instead of inserting a metal cage in the spine for stability, many minimally invasive procedures are able to replace the bulging disc with an artificial disc to help support the spine and still maintain movement in that section.

More information

Talk to your doctor about the treatment options available to you for a bulging disc from weight and ask about prevention steps to keep your spine healthy.