What is a bulging disc?

Back, Exercise, Neck, Hip, Leg, Shoulder, Arm, Pain Management

Man holding his back with an inset image of a model of bulging disc

A bulging disc is a condition that occurs when a spinal disc bulges between the bones (vertebrae) of the spine, causing pain and limiting movement.

Most adults have 24 vertebral bones in their spine. Between each of these vertebrae is a spinal disc that acts as a shock absorber. Each disc has a tough, outer elastic surface (annulus fibrosus) that covers a softer middle (nucleus pulposus). These rubbery discs help you bend and arch your back without pain.

When this cushiony cartilage is injured or starts to break down because of age, it can “bulge” outside the vertebrae’s edges, hence the name bulging disc.

What does a bulging disc feel like?

Some bulging discs do not cause pain, especially those that bulge out of the front or the sides of the spinal column. Bulges that occur towards the back of the spine often press against the spinal column and compress nerves. The location of the bulging disc often determines where a person will feel the pain.

• A bulging disc in the neck can cause neck pain, headache, and numbness in the upper body.

• A bulging disc in the lower spine can cause pain, numbness, or a prickly feeling in the buttock, hip, or leg.

Because bulging discs can often cause referred pain or pain that starts in one place but shows up in another area, they are sometimes challenging to diagnose. Magnetic Resonance Imaging or an MRI is the best way to diagnose the location and severity of a bulging disc.

Is a bulging disc the same as a herniated disc?

Not quite, though the conditions are similar. A bulging disc is like a balloon that has lost air. The outer surface has lost its form, allowing the disc to squeeze between the vertebrae.

A herniated disc has a rip, tear, or hole in the outer surface that allows the jelly-like middle to leak out.

Without treatment and proper care, a bulging disc may progress into a herniated disc.

How are bulging discs treated?

The bulging disc’s location in the spine and the position of the bulge in the vertebrae will often dictate the type of treatment needed.

Often your health care provider will start with a conservative, non-surgical treatment that may include rest and medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen to reduce the inflammation and irritation of the disc. Your health care provider may also prescribe physical therapy, exercises to strengthen your core and improve your posture, spinal injections, and medications to relieve pain.

These medical interventions, along with modifications to your activities and time, are key to giving your body time to heal.

Often this conservative approach to the treatment of bulging discs results in healing. Only 10 percent of bulging disc issues need surgery.

If you suffer from back pain, don’t let it stop you from moving. Make an appointment with one of Bone & Joint’s orthopedic specialists for a diagnosis and treatment.

If you have pain and weakness in your legs and feet, call at once for an appointment! These symptoms may indicate a more severe problem that needs treatment right away to avoid long-term complications or damage.

Check out other articles published in February 2021:

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How do I know if my physical therapy is working?
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