Bulging Disc: Symptoms, Causes & Treatments
If you have ever experienced a bulging disc, then you know that it can be a painful and potentially dangerous condition, particularly if the disc eventually herniates. If you think you are suffering from a bulging disc, it is critical to understand the details of the conditions, as well as the causes, symptoms, potential treatments and warning signs when you should visit a doctor.
Table of Contents
What is a Bulging Disc?
A bulging disc is a condition that occurs when one of the discs in your back moves out of place. Between every spinal vertebra, there exists a small disc that acts as a shock absorber, reducing the impact and wear on your spinal column. These discs, medically known as intervertebral discs, have a hard fibrous covering a gel-like nucleus, called the nucleus pulposus. This inner core helps to distribute stress and pressure across the entire disc, thus protecting the spinal vertebrae. However, over time, these discs can begin to break down or weaken, particularly in places like the hard outer shell. A number of different factors can contribute to this deterioration of the casing.
When these casings begin to deteriorate, it can cause the inner nucleus to bulge or swell at that weak point, pushing the disc through any available crevice or space in the spine. As that disc moves further out of its normal area, it can begin pressing on nerves, which will inevitably cause pain and inflammation in the back.
However, in many cases, people will be unaware that they have a bulging disc until it progresses to a more serious state – disc herniation. This occurs when the nucleus pulposus breaks through a crack in the outer casing of the disc and begins to leak into the surrounding space. The lack of symptoms in some people is why this condition can be so dangerous; the pain might not appear until the condition has already reached a serious level.
What Causes a Bulging Disc?
Bulging discs can be caused by a number of things, including age-related wear and tear, injury to the back, poor posture, general deterioration, obesity, improper footwear and specific high-risk movements.
Injury to the Spine: If you have experienced any sort of trauma or injury to the back, outside of the normal stress and pressure of daily activity and exercise, you could significantly speed up the movement of a disc between your vertebrae, which can lead to a bulging disc, and may rapidly lead to a herniation.
Posture: Poor posture may be the biggest contributor to bulging discs, as this can provide a constant amount of pressure on the outer casing of a disc, causing it to change shape for extended periods of time. When that pressure is relieved, the disc may not always return to its original shape. Over time, this can result in a bulging disc.
Aging Process: As we age, our bodies deteriorate in any number of ways, and the same is true for the discs between our vertebrae. Furthermore, the amount of water present in our body, and in those discs, begins to decline over time. Without the water inside them to keep them “inflated”, the discs begin to flatten and are more prone to movement, damage, and inflammation. This gradual process may take decades, but it happens to everyone eventually.
Shoe Choice: As distant as the feet are from the spine, they have a serious impact on every step we take, and the constant impact pressure that we put on our vertebrae. If you are wearing shoes with poor support, or shoes that are too big or small, you could be contributing daily damage to your discs, which will increase your risk for this particular condition.
High-risk Movements: Certain jobs require more physicality than others, and many industries see higher levels of bulging disc patients than others. If you are in a job that demands frequent lifting, straining, carrying or jumping, you are putting extra strain on your discs, and should consciously rest your back to allow for repair.
Deterioration: Every day that we walk around town, pick up groceries, hug our children, go running or clean the house, we are putting some amount of pressure on our back. The general wear and tear of life is unavoidable, which can cause a gradual breakdown of the outer casing on our spinal disc.
Obesity: If you are overweight, you are forcing your body – your feet, your joints and your spine – to hold up those extra pounds. If your frame is not naturally large enough to support the excess weight, it puts additional strain on the spine and the discs, which is why bulging discs are commonly seen in obese patients.
Bulging Disc Symptoms
Although not everyone presents with symptoms when experiencing a bulging disc, some of the common symptoms include a variety of tingling in the neck, pain in the back and muscle spasms.
Tingling: Sensations of tingling in your hands, neck, legs or extremities may be an indicator that you have a bulging disc in your upper spine. While this feeling may be mild, pressure on that part of the spine can cause more serious muscle impairment and the inability to walk normally or perform motor functions. See a doctor if this sort of tingling persists for more than a day.
Pain: When the inner fluid of a disc bulges outside the spinal column, it can press on nearby nerves, which may result in pain and subsequent inflammation. This pain may extend from the point of the pressure into the stomach and abdomen, and also warrants a visit to the doctor, in order to determine whether it is being caused by something more serious.
Muscle Spasms: The nerve bundles in our spine control a huge amount of our body’s muscle and motor functions, so when pressure is applied by a bulging disc, it can result in muscle spasms in the legs and buttocks. This is usually a sign of a lower-back bulging disc and can result in any number of symptoms, ranging from incontinence to sharp shooting pains down the leg.
Bulging Disc Treatment
There are quite a few effective treatment options for a bulging disc, such as lifestyle changes, ice, pain relievers, stretching, exercise regimens, steroid injections, weight loss, surgery and laser therapy.
Often the most simple solution is the best one; ice can reduce inflammation surrounding a bulging disc, which can ease pain and help the disc return to its normal area.
Ibuprofen and aspirin are often recommended to relieve the discomfort and pain of a bulging disc, or to reduce the inflammation in the back that is causing stiffness.
Doing more stretching before your daily activities or more strenuous needs is essential. This will keep the muscles in your back warm and increase the flexibility of your spine, which could help ease some of the tension and pressure on the bulging disc.
In roughly 10% of cases of a bulging disc, non-operative approaches simply won’t work, and to avoid the risk of eventual herniation, surgery will be performed. While this can be an effective approach, open surgery on the spine does pose many risks, and the recovery time from the procedure can be extensive.
One of the newer options for treatment, laser therapy can help to reduce the inflammation surrounding a bulging disc without invasive surgery, significantly reducing the risk to the patient at a lower cost, and with similar effects.
If your lifestyle demands that you put a strain on your back, such as athletic responsibilities, professional duties or even childcare (lifting and setting down an infant), you should try to mitigate the impact of these activities on your body. If you don’t rest and remove yourself from the risk factors that caused the disc to bulge in the first place, there is little chance of reversing the progression of the disc.
Exercises for Bulging Disc
Non-impact exercises like walking are highly recommended, rather than running or playing more organized sports.
Pilates and yoga are two excellent options if you are suffering from a bulging disc. These stretching-oriented practices will improve your flexibility and lower inflammation in your spine.
Another low-impact exercise, swimming works all of your body’s muscles, but puts almost no pressure on the spine while doing so!
Lie on your back, knees bent and kept hip-width apart. Then, raise your buttocks until you form a straight line on your spine and hold for 10 seconds. Repeat this 10 times per day.
Lie on your stomach in a push-up position, then lift yourself up, keeping your pelvis and hips on the floor. Hold this for 10 seconds and repeat 10-12 times per set.