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 be asking yourself, “what is a bulging disc?” This is a common question, and an important one, for patients wanting to understand more about their condition so they can take the next steps toward treatment.

A bulging disc is a disc in the spine that has expanded beyond its normal size due to compression from the surrounding vertebrae.

This type of condition can be caused by a number of factors, including injury and trauma, but is most commonly a result of the natural aging process of the spine. A gradually developing bulging disc is called a degenerative bulging disc and is often only noticed when symptoms of pain and discomfort appear and worsen with time.

As you begin researching information about bulging discs, you should consult your doctor about the probable cause of your condition and the treatment options available to you. Your doctor can help answer your questions and, if necessary, recommend a spine specialist for certain treatment programs.

What is a bulging disc caused by?

The most common follow up question to “what is a bulging disc” is often “what is a bulging disc caused by.”

There are two main causes of a bulging disc in the spine: degeneration of the spine and injury/trauma. The more common of these two causes is the natural degeneration and aging of the spine. A degenerative bulging disc can be the result of several factors that all lead to the gradual weakening of the spine over time. These factors include:

  • Age
  • Genetics
  • Weight
  • Lifestyle (tobacco or alcohol use)
  • Lifting mechanics
  • Level of fitness or activity

These factors work together to weaken the discs and to apply pressure to the spine, thereby causing the weakened disc to bulge.

The discs in the spine act as cushions or “shock absorbers” to help reduce the impact during movement and activity. In order to absorb each jolt on the spine, a disc is both flexible and tough. The nucleus pulposus, the disc’s center, is made of a gel-like base that gives the disc fluidity and allows it to absorb impact without breaking. The annulus fibrosus, the disc’s outer layer, is made of a tough, elastic fiber that holds the nucleus in place and gives the disc flexibility to absorb the movements of the spine. However, just like an elastic rubber band that has been stretched for too long, excessive movements and pressure on the spine can weaken the elasticity in the annulus fibrosus, allowing the disc to bulge.

This condition is especially common in the lumbar spine (lower back) because this section of the spine is responsible for supporting the majority of the body’s weight and movement. Therefore, factors like weight and improper lifting techniques can compress and strain the discs, gradually leading to a bulging disc over time.

What is a bulging disc warning sign?

A bulging disc warning sign will only appear if the disc pinches a nearby nerve root or the spinal cord itself. Bulging discs do not usually cause pain or symptoms by themselves, instead they generally develop when the disc compresses a nerve. This is can be the first warning that you may have a bulging disc or other spine condition.

The most common warning signs and symptoms of a bulging disc include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle fatigue or weakness
  • Burning sensation

In the case of a degenerative bulging disc, these symptoms may appear gradually, making them a warning sign that you may have a damaged disc in your spine. For many people, the first indication of a bulging disc is a sharp pain when bending or during certain movements. This is because the disc has just begun to bulge and can only compress the nearest nerve when the spine bends or twists.

If you feel seemingly random stiffness or pain in your neck or back when you move a certain way, and this cycle of pain continues for longer than a week or so, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to find the source of your pain.

For cases of bulging discs caused by injury or trauma, a warning sign is pain that does not go away after resting a few days. Typically, pain and symptoms from this type of bulging disc will appear suddenly after the injury and should be monitored closely.

If you experience any difficulty breathing or loss of bowel/bladder control, seek immediate medical attention.

Next steps

If you have experienced any of the bulging disc warning signs or symptoms mentioned above, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor to determine if a bulging disc is the cause of your pain.

During your appointment, take advantage of the opportunity to ask your doctor about your condition and what you can expect. Ask questions beyond simply “what is a bulging disc” and focus more on the next steps, such as:

  • What are the treatment options available to me?
  • Do I need surgery?
  • How long does the treatment process typically take before I feel pain relief?

If you’ve already been diagnosed with a bulging disc and you simply want to learn more about your condition and treatment options, a consultation with your doctor or a spine care specialist can help you find the answers you are looking for.