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Bulging Discs

Example of a Bulging Disc

Bulging discs, also known as disc protrusions, are a very common occurrence in people of all ages. The spine is made up of small, round bones (vertebrae) that are cushioned by shock-absorbing discs. These discs feature a tough, fibrous shell and a soft, gel-like core. The outer fibrous portion of our discs can weaken due to factors such as daily wear and tear, sudden injury, and the body’s natural aging process. Pressure from the inner core of the disc can then stretch to the outer rim, causing the disc to “bulge” outward in one direction.

If left untreated, the bulging disc can continue to stretch until it tears, which is classified as a herniated disc. Both bulging and herniated discs usually remain asymptomatic; however, they can cause discomfort and disability in various parts of the body if the disc compresses an adjacent nerve root or the spinal cord.

Bulging Disc Symptoms

Because a bulging disc does not always trigger obvious symptoms, many people have a bulging disc without realizing it. As long as the bulging portion of the disc does not press against a nearby nerve, no symptoms occur. When the bulging disc does cause a pinched nerve, however, you may begin to experience symptoms. Some of the most common bulging disc symptoms include:

  • Pain that radiates through the arms or legs
  • Localized pain around the area of the bulging disc
  • Muscle weakness in the lower body
  • Localized or radiating numbness and tingling sensations
  • Feeling of heat
  • Neck stiffness

Where Can a Bulging Disc Occur?

Bulging disc symptoms may vary according to the location of the injured disc in the spine. A high percentage of bulging discs occur in the lower back, or the lumbar area, of the spine. The most common lumbar bulging disc is seen between lumbar vertebrae L4 and L5, and between vertebrae L5 and S1, causing pain in the L5 nerve or S1 spinal nerve, respectively. The sciatic nerve receives neurons from spinal nerves L3 through S3. If the bulging disc impinges upon one or more of these six spinal nerves, then sciatic nerve pain could result.

The discs between the neck area, or cervical vertebrae, may also bulge. If nerve root compression occurs in the cervical, or upper, region of the spine, bulging disc symptoms will manifest in the neck with radiation to the scapular area, shoulder, arm, forearm, and hand.

Causes of Bulging Disc

Understanding the causes of bulging discs can help you avoid activities that may worsen your symptoms. A bulging disc occurs when the disc’s tough outer shell weakens, prompting its soft core to press against the shell and bulge outward. As we grow older, the spine’s discs and other components begin to lose water content and become increasingly brittle. While the natural aging process can’t be avoided, some activities and behaviors accelerate the spinal degeneration process and increase the risk of disc protrusion at a younger age.

Possible causes and risk factors

Most of the time, bulging discs develop after years of everyday wear and tear on the spine. However, it’s possible that the normal degeneration of discs can be accelerated or exacerbated by several risk factors. Some of these risk factors may include:

  • Genetics
  • Obesity or inactivity
  • High-impact sports
  • Repetitive movements
  • Poor posture
  • Alcohol or tobacco use
  • Injuries or trauma

While there is no exact science to determining which of these factors may lead to disc degeneration, understanding the possible causes and risk factors will help those diagnosed with bulging discs correct habits that may accelerate degeneration.

To help maintain good spinal health, consider:

  • Losing excess weight
  • Eating a balanced and nutrient-rich diet
  • Quitting smoking and other forms of tobacco use
  • Keeping good posture
  • Avoiding high-impact sports and exercises

Additionally, be sure to protect your back when lifting, engage in regular low-impact exercise to strengthen core muscles, and adopt a routine of gentle stretching. These behaviors can help keep your spine healthy and help you avoid bulging discs as you age. Despite taking measures to maintain good spine health, bulging discs may sometimes occur in otherwise healthy individuals. There are several techniques that may be used to confirm the presence of a bulging disc including X-ray imaging, a CT (computed tomography) scan, or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).

Bulging Disc Treatment

Your ideal course of bulging disc treatment will vary according to your diagnosis. For example, your symptoms and the specific location of the bulging disc in your spine will influence your treatment plan. However, generally speaking, a physician may first recommend a course of conservative approaches such as:

  • Chiropractic treatment — to realign the spine and help reduce pain and inflammation
  • Massage therapy — to relax the muscles supporting the spine
  • Physical therapy — to strengthen and stretch the muscles that support the spine
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — to provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation
  • Gentle stretching exercises — to elongate the neck and back muscles and promote proper spinal alignment
  • Alternating use of ice packs and heating pads — to numb pain, reduce inflammation, soothe tensed muscles and improve circulation around the injured area
  • Anti-inflammatory injections — to provide temporary yet powerful relief from pain
  • Lifestyle modifications — such as participating in regular low-impact exercise, buying more comfortable footwear and wearing a brace to help maintain good posture.

The long-term effectiveness of these methods varies for each patient’s condition, although some patients report positive results.

Surgical Treatment for Bulging Discs

Many patients are able to find relief from bulging disc symptoms through a combination of conservative treatments and lifestyle modifications. Still, spinal surgery to relieve pressure on a compressed nerve or repair the bulging disc may sometimes be clinically appropriate if several weeks or months of conservative treatment does not relieve severe symptoms.

While traditional open spine surgery involves long incisions, expensive hospitalization, significant surgical risk, and an extended, uncomfortable recovery period, minimally invasive alternatives address the underlying cause of pain through one or a few small incisions.

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