Bulging disc pain can range from sporadic, only appearing during certain movements or activities, to debilitating, preventing you from completing normal daily tasks like driving or standing for too long.
The type and severity of bulging disc pain you experience could indicate progression of your spine condition and also which treatments may benefit you. For example, mild or somewhat moderate pain may simply need rest and daily stretching, while more severe pain can require pain medication and physical therapy.
Bulging disc pain is also a helpful tool for your doctor to locate the damaged spinal disc. Depending on where the pain is felt, whether in the spine or the extremities, your doctor can narrow down the location of the damaged disc and order imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis. For instance, if you are experiencing pain in your lower back that reaches down into your buttocks and legs, your doctor will have a good indication that your sciatic nerve is being pinched in your lumbar spine and will therefore order an imaging test on your lower back. Similarly, pain in the head, neck and shoulders may indicate a damaged disc in the cervical spine (neck).
Bulging disc pain to indicate the progression of damage in the spine
Bulging disc pain can often be a good indication of the severity of the damage to the disc. This is because pain and other symptoms only develop when a nerve in the spine is compressed or pinched. These nerves rest outside the spine within the spinal canal, meaning nerve compression can often only be achieved by a moderate or severe bulge in a disc (or other spine condition).
For example, bulging disc pain that only occurs sporadically with certain movements could mean that the bulge in the disc is mild or moderate — not fully reaching the nerve root for constant compression by only touching it if the spine bends a certain way. On the contrary, chronic bulging disc pain could indicate that the disc has bulged to the point where it reaches the nerve root on its own. This pain could be made worse during bending or certain other movements, but it remains somewhat constant regardless of the position of the spine.
In addition to bulging disc pain, other symptoms may develop from a bulging disc causing nerve compression. These symptoms may include:
- Muscle weakness
- Burning sensation
- Reduced reflexes
- Sharp, stabbing pain
In some cases of more severely bulging discs, the pain and symptoms could travel the length of the compressed nerve pathway and reach into other areas of the body. For this reason, a bulging disc in the neck may cause pain, numbness and tingling down the arm and into the hand, or pain to radiate into the head. Therefore, the severity and location of bulging disc pain could indicate the progression of damage to the disc.
Bulging disc pain to indicate the type of treatment necessary
While bulging disc pain can indicate the severity of the damage to the disc, it can also indicate the type of treatment that would be most beneficial to your condition. For many people, a doctor’s first recommendation for bulging disc pain and symptoms is often a series of conservative, nonsurgical treatments. Because the list of these treatments is extensive, understanding the amount of bulging disc pain a patient is experiencing could help the doctor narrow down the best place to start for pain relief.
The commonly used conservative treatments for bulging disc pain include:
- Rest (limited)
- Physical therapy
- Chiropractic care
- Pain medication
- Massage therapy
- Yoga and stretches
- Lifestyle changes
- Low-impact exercises
- Corticosteroid injections
For minor, sporadic bulging disc pain, your doctor may recommend some rest, stretches and lifestyle changes such as weight loss, limiting alcohol and ceasing tobacco use. Some low-impact exercises, like daily walks, have also been shown to relieve bulging disc pain and strengthen the spine.
For more intense, chronic pain, your doctor may recommend physical therapy and pain medication. Physical therapy works to strengthen the core muscles around your spine in order to help relieve pressure from the bulging disc and pinched nerve. The exercises and stretches performed during physical therapy are monitored by a trained specialist to help ensure your health and safety. Additional treatment may be found through pain medication, which can vary from over-the-counter to prescription narcotics. Your doctor may recommend a pain medication plan based on the severity of your pain and your medical history.
If your bulging disc pain does not respond to any conservative treatments after several months, your doctor may recommend spine surgery. Spine surgery for a bulging disc is often performed in two fashions: traditional open neck or back surgery and minimally invasive spine surgery.
Traditional open neck or back surgery is often performed in a hospital setting and requires a 5- to 10-inch incision to reach the spine. In some cases, the muscles around the spine are torn in order to better access the damaged disc. While this technique does provide more room for the surgeons to work, it also increases a patient’s risk of excessive scar tissue (which could lead to failed back surgery syndrome), complication after surgery and a prolonged recovery time.
Minimally invasive surgery has been proven to reduce the risk of complication and shorten the recovery time compared to traditional spine surgery. Typically performed in an outpatient setting, minimally invasive surgery often requires no overnight hospitalization. The incision is minimal, sometimes less than one inch. Because of the minimally invasive techniques used, the muscles surrounding the spine are left untouched, contributing to a lower risk of complication and a shorter recovery time.
Talk to your doctor about the potential risks and benefits of minimally invasive spine surgery compared to traditional spine surgery. Always make sure you research the procedures to make a confident and informed decision about your bulging disc treatment.