Bulging disc types can be categorized into two groups: bulging disc types according to location and bulging disc types according to severity.
If you’ve been diagnosed with a bulging disc, or if you strongly suspect you have a bulging disc, understanding the different types may be instrumental in helping you take the next step toward treatment.
Bulging disc types according to location
While there are three sections of the spine — the cervical (neck), thoracic (middle back) and the lumbar (lower back) — bulging discs most commonly develop in the cervical and lumbar regions. This is because the cervical and lumbar spine support and maintain the flexibility of the head and upper body, respectively. Over the years, this can lead to the gradual breakdown of the components of the spine, especially the discs that cushion and protect the vertebrae with each movement.
Cervical bulging disc
A cervical bulging disc is a damaged disc that develops in the neck. This bulging disc type is common in many people over the age of fifty, due to natural spine degeneration with age, and athletes who have sustained years of injury and performed years of constant head movements. Imagine the impact on the neck of a football player being tackled or a baseball player constantly looking down to catch thousands of ground balls throughout a career. The hard impact of the tackle and the repetitive neck movement of the baseball player can both serve to create a bulging disc in the neck.
You can identify this type of bulging disc by the symptoms commonly associated with it, such as:
- Muscle weakness
- Diminished reflexes
Because a bulging disc creates pain by compressing a nerve root near the spine or the spinal cord itself, it can sometimes create radiating symptoms, which means symptoms that travel from the pinched nerve to other areas of the body. For a bulging disc in the neck, specifically, the areas of the body that can be affected by this condition include:
Lumbar bulging disc
The type of bulging disc that develops in the lumbar spine is often caused by the natural weakening of the spine with age. As the discs in the spine become dehydrated with years of compression, they can begin to bulge and cause pain. Typically, this bulging disc type can be identified by the following symptoms:
- Muscle weakness
- Burning sensation
- Limited mobility or movement without pain
If the bulging disc in the lower back pinches the large sciatic nerve that runs along the lumbar spine, symptoms of sciatica may develop, which simply means the standard symptoms of a bulging disc (listed above) can travel from the lower back into the buttocks, legs and feet.
Thoracic bulging disc
This bulging disc type is not common because the thoracic spine does not have much flexibility, leaving little room for spinal deterioration over the years. Most of the vertebrae of the thoracic spine are attached to the rib cage and therefore protected from many of the factors that cause a bulging disc, such as repetitive motion, weight gain and injury. In some cases, however, a bulging disc does develop in the thoracic spine and cause symptoms of pain to stretch from the middle of the back into the rib cage and sometimes the chest.
Bulging disc type according to severity
A bulging disc develops when a disc in the spine, meant to cushion the vertebrae, bulges and expands under continual pressure or sudden trauma. Each disc is made of an elastic outer layer that expands around a gel-like nucleus. While the elastic outer layer (annulus fibrosus) helps maintain the correct shape and height of the disc, the elasticity in this layer may eventually give way and allow the disc to bulge and expand under compression.
There are three bulging disc types that can be categorized by severity:
- Symmetrical — A symmetrical bulging disc is a disc that expands equally on both sides when compressed.
- Protrusion — A protrusion is a type of bulging disc that has predominantly expanded in one direction, as opposed to an equal expansion on both sides.
- Focal bulge — A focal bulge occurs when less than 25 percent of the disc bulges on one side, which is less of a bulge than a protrusion at 25 – 50 percent.
By identifying the bulging disc type that has developed in your spine, you can begin to plan the next step to take toward pain relief. You should always see a general doctor or spine specialist to have an MRI test or CT scan in order to accurately diagnose your bulging disc and to discuss the treatment options that are most effective with your condition and your medical history.