Can You Work with a Bulging Disc: The Do’s and Dont’s

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Bulging discs, common spinal conditions, affect over 40% of the population and more than half of older adults. 

Some people may not even realize they have a bulging disc issue with few to no symptoms. But for others, the condition can be extremely disruptive, including major impacts on their ability to work. 

With such a wide variation in when and how a spinal disc problem can affect your life, it can be hard to know what to do and when you need to make a serious change at work. 

Here we discuss what you need to know about bulging discs and related conditions and suggestions for navigating work with a compromised spine.

What Is a Bulging Disc?

To describe a bulging disc, first understand the anatomy and structure of a healthy spine.

The spine is the large bony structure that runs along our backs to support our posture, enable our mobility, and protect our spinal cord. 

It consists of 33 vertebrae separated and cushioned by intervertebral discs with a gel center and fibrous elastic-like outer ring. 

Over time, the continuous strain we put on our spines as we move can wear down this outer ring. Like a rubber band that has been repeatedly stretched, the strength of the fibrous ring around the vertebral disc wears down. 

This allows the soft, gel center of the disc to slip out of place and push against that outer ring. This creates the appearance of a “bulge” hence the term bulging disc.

Though sometimes related, bulging discs are unique from herniated discs, another common spinal condition.

Unlike a bulging disc, a herniated disc involves a tear in the disc’s outer ring that lets the gel-like center push out into the spinal canal. It mainly presses on the spinal nerves, which can cause pain.

The gel doesn’t actually flow into the spinal cord unless the herniation is quite severe.

Up to 20 out of every 1,000 adults have a herniated disc.

Generally, medical experts consider bulging discs more chronic or degenerative, with symptoms gradually increasing. By comparison, herniated discs typically set in abruptly.

What Are the Risk Factors for Bulging or Herniated Discs?

As a degenerative condition, some factors can make one more likely to experience a bulging disc. Some of those factors include the following:

  • Men are twice as likely to experience a bulging disc as women are.
  • Older adults (over 80 years old) are nearly twice as likely to have bulging discs compared to younger adults.
  • People in their 30s to 50s are most likely to experience a herniated disc.
  • Nine out of ten bulging discs occur in the lumbar spine.
  • Overweight individuals are more likely to experience bulging discs due to the additional strain on the spinal tissues.
  • Lifestyle factors such as a sedentary lifestyle and smoking can damage bodily tissue over time.
  • Work-related factors, including physically demanding jobs or engagement in other sources of excessive physical strain, can increase risk.
  • Ergonomic risks (i.e., poor body mechanics when lifting, pulling, etc.) can increase the chances of developing a bulging disc.

While these factors are not a guarantee that you will or will not have a spinal health concern, they are important to keep in mind. You can discuss your specific risk factors with Dr. Morrison who will help you determine your preventative or management approaches.

Signs and Symptoms

As mentioned above, many people with bulging or herniated discs may not have any symptoms. However, for those who do, they can be very difficult to manage. 

People with a bulging disc often report that their symptoms gradually worsen over time. 

Commonly reported signs and symptoms often include the following:

  • Weakness in your arms or legs
  • Tingling or decreased sensation in your arms, legs, or trunk, including possible sciatica
  • Pain or discomfort in one or more of these areas: back, buttocks, hips, or leg(s)
  • Worsening of symptoms with extended periods of sitting, standing, walking, bending, lifting, or twisting
  • No symptoms at all

Many people report that their symptoms may start as discomfort or annoyance and increase to disruptive or painful.

Treatment Options for Bulging and Herniated Discs

If you believe you have a bulging or herniated disc, it is important to bring this up with Dr. Morrison. 

He will be able to perform diagnostic screenings and testing to confirm if and where you have a bulging disc, including strength, sensation, coordination, and other neuromotor testing. 

Dr. Morrison will also likely order an MRI of your spine to officially diagnose your condition and to know 1) where the spine is affected and 2) the nature and severity of your specific case. 

With a formal diagnosis and a better understanding of your symptoms, Dr. Morrison can share his treatment recommendations. 

Dr. Morrison offers both nonsurgical and surgical treatment options for bulging discs. Depending on the severity of the condition, less invasive nonsurgical options may be recommended first. 

These nonsurgical treatments may include:

  • Rest
  • Steroid injections
  • Pain and anti-inflammatory medications
  • Gentle exercises or stretches for mobility
  • Rehabilitative therapies such as physical and occupational therapy
  • Use of braces, orthotics, and proper body mechanics to support and protect your joints

Often, people may experience significant or complete relief from symptoms in 6 to 12 weeks.

If conservative treatments don’t ease symptoms or if the disc’s condition is severe, Dr. Morrison may consider these surgical options:

  • Microdiscectomy
  • Laminectomy
  • Decompression and fusion
  • Artificial disc replacement

Each of these surgical approaches varies in terms of being done as inpatient vs. outpatient procedures, their recovery times, and follow-up care requirements.

All surgical methods aim to remove, support, or replace parts of the spinal discs and canal, relieving nerve pressure and strengthening the spine.

Each patient’s unique case will influence recovery and functional outcomes. Dr. Morrison will recommend the best treatment approach and discuss your recovery expectations.

Can You Work with a Bulging Disc? When Should I Talk to My Employer?

Our spines are a part of every activity and function we do. As a result, bulging disc symptoms can be very disruptive, particularly to our work routine. 

Deciding when and how to discuss this with your workplace leaders depends on your symptoms and job duties.

Mild to moderate symptoms may be managed with simple adjustments like using sit-stand desks, optimizing workspace ergonomics, or taking brief walking and stretching breaks.

If your job role and leadership team can allow for these changes, then no further action may be needed.

However, it is important to talk to your employer immediately if you engage in work that is physically demanding (i.e., excessive lifting, bending, walking, etc.) or if you believe your pain may be work-related. 

Timely communication about an injury is key to a possible Workers’ Compensation case or protected leave for short-term disability benefits. 

The first steps often involve getting an early evaluation from an approved medical provider or sharing one from an outside physician.

Whether you sit at a desk or are on your feet all day, nearly every job has demands and tasks that can be taxing on an unhealthy spine. It is important to be aware of your legal rights and protections as an employee and to collaborate with your employer as needed. 

Work Accommodations, Protected Leave, and Other Work Options

As mentioned above, there are a few common legal or administrative options available. 

While some organizations may have their own policies or leave options, some protections are universally available to employees. 

Here are some of the most common benefit options and key terms you should know when navigating your options after experiencing back pain.

Your employer often provides Short-Term Disability as a form of paid leave through an insurance benefit. Individuals may also sign themselves up for short-term disability insurance. 

This benefit is designed to provide weekly payment to replace lost wages after experiencing an injury, illness, maternity leave, or other acute conditions that prevent an employee from working. 

These cases often involve non-work related incidents or other situations that may not be covered by workers’ comp.

Workers’ Compensation or workers’ “comp” systems are complex, state-run programs with processes that can vary greatly from state to state. 

In general, they provide financial reimbursement for medical bills and lost wages due to a workplace injury or illness. Payment amounts usually depend on the type of injury/illness, total medical costs, total amount of lost wages, the events surrounding the injury/illness, and personal characteristics of the affected employee. 

If your bulging disc injury is work-related, review your state’s workers’ compensation program carefully and consider consulting an expert to advise on your claim.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is a federal policy that allows employees to take job-protected leave for several qualifying events, including serious health conditions that prevent them from performing their essential duties.

However, it is important to note that this leave is unpaid. 

The primary purpose of this legal requirement is to protect employees from wrongful firing when dealing with uncontrollable personal and family emergencies.

Workplace accommodations involve adjusting or modifying work roles or environments to facilitate employee participation, even with building disc work restrictions. 

Options for accommodations are endless and can vary across each individual’s needs and the nature of their work or workplace. In general, for back injuries, there are several common, low-cost accommodation options. Some examples include:

  • Adjustable sitting/standing desks
  • Ergonomic seating options including chair options or lumbar support pillows
  • Modified break schedules for stretching, walking, or other means of managing pain
  • Rolling carts for moving work materials
  • Using lifts to elevate a work surface or tools to enable work without excessive bending
  • Anti-fatigue floor mats to protect joints
  • Grab bar installation in bathrooms or other common areas

These are just a few of the potential strategies that could help you at work. There are a range of high-, low-, and no-tech solutions to support your unique needs. Collaborating with your leadership and occupational health team can help create solutions that work for you and your team.

Social Security Disability Benefits, overseen by the Social Security Administration (SSA), include Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). 

These programs are designed to provide long-term financial support to individuals with chronic or permanent disabilities that limit work capacity.

SSDI and SSI may be less commonly pursued for people with bulging discs because the symptoms can typically be managed with good outcomes. 

However, if your symptoms are chronic despite treatment and work is no longer an option, you may consider seeking SSDI and SSI.

Medical Vocational Allowance, or Med-Voc, is an additional disability benefits option for people who may not meet the specific requirements for SSDI and SSI. Qualifying for Med-Voc involves undergoing a medical evaluation to determine your “residual functional capacity” (i.e., your ability to perform previous or other forms of gainfully paid work). 

Though each benefit has unique qualifications and documentation required, all require a level of medical evidence that your bulging disc impairs your ability to work and financially support yourself.

How Dr. Morrison Can Help

Finding an expert spinal doctor to evaluate, diagnose, and treat your bulging disc can make a tremendous difference in protecting your well-being and quality of life. 

This can include making safe, effective decisions about whether or not it is safe for you to continue work. 

While there are many options available to financially support you if a back injury limits your work, navigating those systems can be difficult and requires medical evidence of your conditions. 

While working through these processes and deciding what’s best for you, Dr. Morrison can help by providing:

  • Accurate diagnosis and explanation of your condition
  • Collaborative treatment planning with work recommendations as needed
  • Documentation of your medical status and necessary precautions for work accommodations, protected leave, or short- and long-term disability options

Connect with Morrison Clinic to Find a Plan for You

If you are experiencing bulging disc symptoms or believe you may have a back injury that is affecting your work, it’s time to connect with Morrison Clinic. 

We are your South Florida neurosurgical and spinal health experts who know just how disruptive and uncomfortable spinal injuries or diseases can be to your life. 

The Morrison Clinic team is passionate about providing you with excellent neurological care and maximizing your spine health so that you can reclaim your quality of life.
To learn more about Morrison Clinic and how we can support your spine health, fill out our contact form today.