For many people, a bulging disc develops over time as the components of the spine weaken from age. This is called a degenerative spine condition and often affects people over the age of fifty.

However, for some people, a bulging disc develops suddenly as the result of an injury or trauma. A bulging disc from injury could be caused by an auto accident, sports-related injury or any other sudden trauma that causes impact to the spine. This condition is more evident than a degenerative bulging disc because the symptoms often occur suddenly within a few days of the injury, as opposed to a degenerative bulging disc that gradually shows symptoms over a longer period of time.

If you have recently experienced an auto accident, injury or trauma and you have neck or back pain, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to see if you have a bulging disc caused by injury.

How does a bulging disc from injury occur?

A bulging disc caused by an injury can develop if the vertebrae surrounding the disc are compressed suddenly, causing the disc between them to bulge.

The purpose of the spinal discs is to cushion the vertebrae, allowing them to undergo daily impacts without jarring out of place or damaging. To do this, each disc is comprised of two parts:

  • Nucleus pulposus — a gel-like nucleus that allows the disc to absorb the natural “shock” of the spine with each movement and daily impact, such as walking, running and twisting
  • Annulus fibrosus — a tough, yet elastic outer layer that holds the nucleus in place and allows the disc to bend and compress without breaking (unless a herniated disc or bulging disc develops)

When an injury occurs, the two vertebrae surrounding either side of the disc press down on it, usually from one side, causing the disc to pinch on the compressed side and bulge the nucleus to the other side, creating a bubble-like effect.

Imagine holding a water balloon and squeezing one side of it — the pressure on one side of the balloon will cause the water to move to the other end of the balloon, making that end large and bulging. The same concept applies to a bulging disc. If a football player is tackled from the right side, his spine will suddenly shift from the impact, causing the discs in his spine to be pinched on the right side. If done with enough force, this could cause a disc in the spine to bulge to the left, possibly pinching a nerve root on the left side of the spine and causing pain.

In some cases, a disc may bulge evenly on both sides. This can occur when the spine has equal trauma placed on both sides of it, causing the disc to compress in the middle and bulge to both the left and right. This can happen during an auto accident, fall, sports-related injury or other trauma to the spine. 

How to treat a bulging disc from injury

Unlike a degenerative bulging disc that often goes through a series of conservative treatments for pain relief, treating a bulging disc from injury will depend largely on the amount of damage to the spine that has resulted from the trauma.

Your doctor will most likely order a series of imaging tests, such as an MRI or CT scan, to have an accurate view of your spine in order to recommend the best course of treatment. In some cases, conservative treatment will be recommended to help relieve pressure on the bulging disc and pinched nerve. These conservative treatments could include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Pain medication
  • Chiropractic care
  • Massage therapy
  • Limited rest
  • Stretches and yoga
  • Water therapy
  • Pilates
  • Hold/cold therapy
  • Corticosteroid injections

Your doctor will recommend a treatment plan that best fits your needs, lifestyle and medical history. After performing these treatments for several weeks or months, you should notice a significant improvement in your pain and symptoms. If you do not feel any pain relief, inform your doctor; your doctor may recommend a spine surgery to help treat your bulging disc.

Spine surgery for a bulging disc from injury

There are two main types of bulging disc surgery: traditional spine surgery and minimally invasive spine surgery. Though traditional open spine surgery has been used for a longer period of time, minimally invasive spine surgery has been used for years and has shown significant advantages over traditional spine surgery for most injuries and spine conditions.

During traditional open spine surgery, which is performed at a hospital, the surgeon will make a large incision in the neck or back, often cutting through the muscles surrounding the spine. By cutting these muscles, a patient may be more susceptible to a prolonged recovery while the muscles and the spine both heal. Additionally, this extra cut could cause excessive scar tissue to disrupt the healing process, sometimes causing more damage and symptoms than present before the surgery.

In contrast, a minimally invasive spine surgery, which can be performed in a hospital or an outpatient surgery center, offers a shorter recovery time and lower risk of complication than a traditional open spine surgery. This is because the incision is typically only about 1-inch in length and does not disrupt the muscles near the spine.

To learn more about the treatments and surgery options available to you, contact your doctor or spine care specialist. Your doctor can review your MRI or CT scan and make a recommendation for treatment that is personalized to your needs and lifestyle.