Being diagnosed with a bulging disc may be a little overwhelming; after all, what does a bulging disc even mean and what kind of treatments are available for this type of condition? Maybe you’re asking questions about whether or not surgery is necessary.

These are all common questions to ask after being diagnosed with a spine condition. The best place to find answers is to begin researching bulging disc facts and learning as much as you can about this condition. Your research may reinforce information you already knew or it may bring up new thoughts and questions that you can ask your doctor. Even if this is not the first time you have been diagnosed with a bulging disc, refreshing yourself with bulging discs facts and research may bring to light new information that can help you on your journey to pain relief.

Bulging disc facts — causes

One of the best places to start when researching bulging disc facts is at the beginning — what causes a bulging disc?

For many people, a bulging disc develops as a degenerative spine condition, which means it is caused by the natural aging and weakening of the spine. There are several factors that can contribute to this, such as:

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Weight
  • Lifestyle (smoking, drinking, inactivity)

These factors can weaken the discs in the spine prematurely, causing a disc to bulge or become damaged earlier in life.

A bulging disc occurs when a disc in the spine is pressed and pinched due to pressure on the surrounding vertebrae. Factors like weight gain and inactivity can increase the pressure on the spine, while lifestyle choices like excessive use of alcohol or tobacco can dehydrate and weaken the disc, making it more susceptible to bulging and other damage. These types of bulging discs often develop slowly as the spine wears down under pressure, which means you may be able to identify the condition early in the development, meaning more treatment options may be available to you.

Another cause of a bulging disc is trauma or injury. For many people, this is often a car accident, sports injury or fall. The sudden jarring of the spine can cause the vertebrae in one section to aggressively press down on the disc, resulting in the disc bulging out to one side or both.

Bulging disc facts — symptoms

These bulging disc facts may be more useful in the diagnosis process, but they could still enlighten you about what to expect from a bulging disc.

For some people, a bulging disc shows no symptoms. In fact, as a disc begins to bulge due to degeneration of the spine, many people are unaware that there is anything happening. A bulging disc only shows pain or symptoms if it expands to a point that it presses against a nerve root near the spine or the spinal cord itself. If this happens, the following symptoms may develop:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Burning sensations
  • Slowed reflexes

The pain and symptoms can originate in the area of the bulging disc and sometimes travel to the closest extremity or another area of the body. For example, a bulging disc and pinched nerve in the lower back may cause pain and symptoms to travel to the buttocks, legs and feet, while a bulging disc in the neck may carry symptoms to the shoulders, arms and head.

Bulging disc facts — treatments

For many people, learning about the treatments available for a bulging disc is the most important part of researching this condition.

A bulging disc caused by the natural aging and weakening of the spine can often be treated with conservative, nonsurgical treatments. Generally, surgery for a bulging disc is only recommended when conservative treatments have been ineffective in pain relief or when the damage in the spine causes a medical emergency.

The most common types of conservative treatment used for a bulging disc include:

  • Pain medication
  • Rest (limited)
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Lifestyle changes (weight loss, diet, exercise)
  • Yoga and stretches
  • Corticosteroid injections

Typically, nonsurgical treatments require a few months before effectiveness can be measured. While many patients find relief from conservative treatments, some may require spine surgery to treat a bulging disc at its source.

Spine surgery for a bulging disc can be performed traditionally or as a minimally invasive procedure. Traditional spine surgery is performed in a hospital setting and often involves the following:

  • A 5- to 10-inch incision
  • The muscles around the spine cut or detached
  • Sometimes part of the bulging disc is removed
  • A metal cage and rods inserted over the bulging disc and fused to the two surrounding vertebrae in cases of fusion
  • Increased risk of infection due to hospitalization after surgery
  • Increased risk of scar tissue build up and failed back surgery syndrome due to the large incision and muscle tearing

Alternatively, many patients have started considering and choosing minimally invasive surgery due to the evidence showing a lower risk of infection and complication and a shorter recovery time compared to traditional spine surgery. A minimally invasive surgery is often performed in an outpatient clinic and involves some of the following features:

  • A small incision, sometimes less than 1-inch
  • No muscle disruption or cutting
  • Removes part of the bulging disc
  • An artificial disc is inserted in place of the bulging disc in cases of fusion
  • Patients are often up and walking within hours after surgery
  • No overnight hospitalization

Next steps

As you continue to research bulging disc facts and work with your doctor to find a treatment, ask about the different options available to you. Your doctor can recommend methods of pain relief based on the cause of your condition, medical history and current lifestyle.