A bulging disc or herniated disc is the result of pressure upon an intervertebral disc that results in a protrusion from the disc. Some doctors say that a bulging disc is different than a herniated disc because it hasn't ruptured. Both bulging and herniated discs can be the result of injury, wear and tear upon the spine from natural aging, or degenerative disc disease.
Individuals with herniated or bulging discs often suffer from debilitating pain in the back and hips, either temporarily or chronically. In severe cases, a bulging disc or herniated disc can cause muscle weakness, loss of reflexes, and numbness and tingling.
Treatment of bulging and herniated discs might include physical therapy, non-steroidal pain medications, oral steroids, or epidural injections in an effort to relieve pressure on the disc and reduce pain. Spinal surgery can also repair some herniated discs.
First, to be considered for Social Security disability benefits, your disability must have lasted, or be expected to last, at least one year. Many herniated or bulging discs either resolve themselves within a year or are repaired and fixed by surgery (spinal fusion, laminectomy, or discectomy), so this requirement can be tough to meet. (Social Security generally allots 90 to 120 days for recovery from back surgery in most cases, except for unusual situations.)
Second, Social Security requires either that your back injury is so severe that you meet the requirements of its disability "listing" on spinal disorders or that, because of your age, education, and prior job skills combined with your functional limitations, you can't be expected to do your prior work, or any job.
Social Security mentions "herniated nucleus pulposus," another word for herniated disc, as a disorder that can cause the impingement of a nerve root. Bulging or herniated discs can also cause spinal stenosis (narrowing of the spinal canal). To match Social Security's listing for spinal disorders, your herniated or bulging disc must cause one of these severe issues and meet the complex criteria laid out in the listings (including difficulty walking or using your hands).
Read our articles on the disability listings for nerve root compression (pressure on spinal nerves from the bulging disc) and stenosis to find out if you could qualify. You'll need to have clinical tests for reflexes, muscle strength, and sensation, as well as an MRI, x-rays, or CT scan supporting your diagnosis of nerve root impingement or stenosis.
Alternatively, if your herniated disc, or a failed spinal procedure, has caused irritation and inflammation, you could meet the listing for arachnoiditis (inflammation of a membrane surrounding the spinal cord).
Most patients suffering from a herniated or bulging disc won't meet the demanding criteria of the listings; in fact, only 10% of claimants who are approved for benefits for musculoskeletal disorders are approved through the listings. The other 90% are approved through a "medical-vocational allowance." If your functional limitations (for example, your doctor says you can't bend, crouch, reach overhead, or lift anything above 15 pounds) don't allow you to do your former job, you have a chance at getting a medical-vocational allowance. But your limitations, when combined with your age and education, must be so severe that you can't safely adjust to any less demanding work either. If you are over 50, you have a better chance of winning a medical-vocational allowance. For more information, see our article on medical-vocational allowances for back conditions.
Many people who apply for disability based on a bulging or herniated disc get denied on the first application and need to appeal to get a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. Even then, only about 45% of claimants win their hearings. Your chances of winning at a hearing are increased if you're represented by a disability lawyer: Lawyers know a lot of strategies for winning disability claims and can make sure that you get a fair chance in front of a judge. For information on being represented, including how lawyer fees work for disability cases, see our section on being represented by a disability lawyer.
Updated April 16, 2021