Facts About a Bulging Disc

If you have recently been diagnosed with a bulging disc, or if you strongly suspect you have one in your neck or back, you may have some questions about this condition and how it can be treated. Take a moment to read through these bulging disc FAQs to learn more about bulging discs, and also schedule an appointment with your doctor if you still have unanswered questions or concerns.

Bulging discs are somewhat common among older adults, so you are not alone in the pain you are experiencing. Reading these bulging disc FAQs and researching this condition will help you make a confident decision about the next step in your treatment plan.

What is a bulging disc?

A bulging disc is a disc in the spine that has begun to bulge and alter its shape due to pressure from the surrounding vertebrae.

The discs in the spine are comprised of a gel-like nucleus surrounded by a tough, elastic outer layer of fiber. This outer layer, called the annulus fibrosus, is responsible for keeping the proper shape of the disc as the surrounding vertebrae press down on it during each movement of the spine. Over time, the elasticity in the annulus fibrosus may weaken, allowing the disc to bulge to one or both sides. This is called a bulging disc.

What are the symptoms of a bulging disc?

Not every bulging disc results in symptoms. In fact, many people have a bulging disc in the spine and remain unaware of its presence. This is because a bulging disc only produces symptoms when it presses against a nerve root near the spine or the spinal cord itself. When this happens, the following symptoms may occur:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Burning sensation
  • Slowed reflexes
  • Limited movement or mobility

Because these symptoms develop with nerve compression, the pain and other symptoms can travel the length of the compressed nerve, leading from the spine and moving into other areas of the body. For example, a bulging disc in the neck may cause symptoms that stretch from the neck into the shoulders, arms, hands and head. Similarly, a bulging disc in the lower back may cause symptoms that move into the buttocks, legs and feet.

How do I know if I have a bulging disc?

Many people become aware of a bulging disc in the neck or back after experiencing some of the bulging disc symptoms (listed above) for a week or more. The most accurate way to diagnose this, however, is by consulting your general physician or a spine care specialist.

A bulging disc diagnosis will begin with a series of questions about your pain and symptoms, as well as your medical history and current lifestyle. This information will help your doctor diagnose your condition and also recommend the most appropriate treatment plan for your needs.

If the doctor suspects you have a bulging disc, he or she can perform or order a series of physical evaluations and imaging tests (such as an MRI or CT scan) to better diagnose your condition. Once a diagnosis has been made for a bulging disc, your doctor will recommend a treatment plan to help you find pain relief.

What are the treatments for a bulging disc? 

Treatment for a bulging disc often starts conservatively and should always be monitored by a doctor. Conservative treatments for a bulging disc include:

  • Physical therapy
  • Pain medication
  • Chiropractic care
  • Lifestyle changes, such as weight loss and limiting alcohol and tobacco consumption
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Stretches
  • Yoga
  • Limited rest
  • Hot/cold therapy
  • Corticosteroid injections

These treatments can take anywhere from a few weeks to several months before significant pain relief is experienced. If, after this time, the symptoms have not subsided, your doctor may recommend spine surgery.

What is bulging disc surgery? 

Bulging disc surgery can be performed two different ways: traditional open spine surgery or minimally invasive spine surgery.

A traditional spine surgery is often performed in a hospital setting and requires several days of hospitalization after the procedure. To reach the spine, the surgeon will make an incision of about five to six inches, often cutting through the muscle surrounding the spine. This allows the surgeon ample space to reach the bulging disc but also risks complications and requires a prolonged recovery time after surgery. A simple decompression surgery removes a small piece of the damaged disc from the spine, while a fusion surgery inserts a metal cage around the bulging disc to stabilize the surrounding vertebrae.

A minimally invasive bulging disc surgery can be performed at a hospital or at an outpatient surgery center. For procedures performed at an outpatient surgery center, patients are not required to stay overnight and many are able to return home just a few hours after the surgery. The incision in the spine is minimal, with some surgery centers boasting a less than 1-inch incision. One of the biggest advantages of minimally invasive spine surgery is that it does not require the muscles near the spine to be cut. This lowers the risk of postoperative complication and shortens the recovery time compared to traditional open spine surgery. While the decompression procedures remain the same, a minimally invasive fusion does not often use a metal cage or screws to stabilize the spine. Instead, an artificial disc is inserted in place of the bulging disc, and bone grafts are used if more stabilization is needed.

More information

If you still have questions about a bulging disc or the treatment options available to you, schedule an appointment with your doctor. Your doctor can help you find more personalized answers and treatment plans for your needs.

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