What Is a Bulging Disc?
A bulging disc is a back condition that affects the intervertebral spinal discs. Spinal discs cushion and support vertebrae, provide shock absorption and enable flexible bending and twisting movement in the spine. Discs are made of a tough, fibrous outer ring of ligaments (the annulus fibrosus) that protects a soft, jelly-like core (the nucleus pulposus).
A bulging disc occurs when the jelly-like material begins pressing against the annulus fibrosus, causing the disc to bulge into the spinal canal. The annulus fibrosus can bulge evenly around the entire perimeter of the disc, or only bulge in a quarter or half of the disc. By itself, a bulging disc may cause no pain or symptoms. Symptoms appear if the protruding disc presses against or irritates nearby spinal nerves or the spinal canal.
A bulging disc is not the same as a herniated disc. A herniated disc occurs when the annulus fibrosus tears or ruptures, causing the jelly-like core to leak into the spinal canal. In a bulging disc, the annulus fibrosus stays intact. However, a bulging disc can worsen and herniate over time.
Causes and Risk Factors
Natural disc degeneration is a leading cause of bulging discs. With age, wear and tear, spinal discs become less flexible, stiffer, drier and weaker. They’re less able to support the vertebrae or absorb as much shock, and may begin to bulge out of place. Bulging discs often develop gradually over time with repeated wear and tear. In some cases, bulging discs may be the result of a traumatic accident like a car accident, sports accident, or weight-lifting accident.
Risk factors for bulging discs include age, gender (men are more likely to develop bulging discs), physically demanding jobs with repetitive lifting movements, obesity and genetics.
In some cases, people live with a bulging disc for years without experiencing any pain or symptoms. However, a bulging disc may continue to worsen over time, causing symptoms to appear and become more painful as the disc gets closer to herniating. Symptoms present when the outer shell of the disc presses against nearby spinal nerves. They can range from mild and irritating to severe. Depending on the location of the bulging disc, you may experience the following:
- Lumbar spine. One of the most common symptoms of a bulging disc is sciatica, which develops when a disc compresses the nerve roots in the lumbar spine. You may feel one-sided hot, burning or electric pain that starts in the low back and extends down the buttock, thigh, calf and foot. You may also feel weakness, numbness and tingling down the pathway of the compressed nerve.
- Cervical spine. In the cervical spine, a bulging disc may cause pain, numbness, tingling and weakness that starts in the neck and moves down the shoulder, arm, hand and fingers.
In the lumbar spine, as symptoms of a bulging disc progress, you may experience difficulty walking or standing for long periods. Symptoms are typically aggravated by movements and body positions that place pressure on the spinal discs, like sitting, bending over, lifting and twisting. Symptoms can also appear after a forceful movement like coughing, sneezing or laughing.
Treatment and Prevention
In many cases, bulging disc symptoms will resolve after a few days to a few weeks of non-surgical treatment. Your doctor will likely prescribe a combination of the following:
- Rest and activity modifications. Avoid activities that aggravate your symptoms. While you should try to remain as active as you can, stop and rest if physical activity begins causing pain.
- Ice and heat therapy. For the first few days, apply ice packs several times a day to achy areas to relieve pain, swelling and inflammation. After a few days, you can switch to heat packs to soothe tight, tense muscles and relieve pain. You can also alternate between the two therapies.
- Medications. Take over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatories to ease mild to moderate pain. If you’re in significant pain, your doctor may prescribe stronger pain medications or muscle relaxants to help with muscle spasms.
- Physical therapy. Your doctor may recommend a course of physical therapy, so that you can work on strengthening the back, core and leg muscles that protect the spine. A therapist can also work with you to practice good posture and proper lifting techniques that will reduce your chance of injury. And finally, your therapist will guide you through stretches and exercises that relieve pressure on the spine and spinal nerves, to help you find pain relief.
- Injections. If you’re experiencing a lot of pain and reduced mobility, you may benefit from a corticosteroid injection directly into the spine. Injections reduce pain, swelling, inflammation and irritation around compressed nerve roots. Cortisone shots provide temporary relief that may last for a few months to a year.
At home, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of injury and maintain a strong and healthy back and spine. Exercising regularly and losing excess weight can help you manage pain and keep your muscles and joints strong and mobile to prevent future damage.
If you continue to experience pain and symptoms from a bulging disc for several weeks without relief, surgery may be an option. Surgery is reserved as a last treatment option for people who are experiencing significant pain or signs of nerve damage (like numbness and weakness). Your surgical options may include a decompression procedure to relieve pressure from a compressed nerve root, or a procedure to repair or remove the bulging disc.
Contact Integrity Spine and Orthopedics to Learn More About the Conditions We Treat
At Integrity Spine and Orthopedics, we specialize in identifying, diagnosing and treating a wide range of acute and chronic back, spine and joint conditions. Our board-certified orthopedic surgeons specialize in performing minimally invasive spine surgeries to reduce pain and improve mobility for patients diagnosed with spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease, bulging or herniated discs, a pinched nerve, spinal stenosis and more.
Some of the primary benefits of minimally invasive surgery include:
- Smaller incisions
- Fewer complications and bloss loss during surgery
- Less damage to surrounding muscle and soft tissues
- Lower risk of infection
- Less post-op pain and less reliance on strong pain medications during recovery
- Faster recovery and rehabilitation
- Better cosmetic results with minimal scarring
If you’re experiencing back or joint pain, weakness, or a loss of mobility, reach out to us today to schedule a consultation with our team. We provide compassionate and comprehensive care to help you find relief from pain and get back to doing the activities you love.
Call us at 904-456-0017 or contact us online to request an appointment.