What is a bulging disc?

What is a bulging disc?

If you have been diagnosed with a bulging disc, you are not alone. Bulging discs, also known as disc protrusion, are a very common occurrence in people of various ages. The spine is made up of small, round bones (vertebrae) that are cushioned by shock-absorbing discs. These discs feature a tough, fibrous shell and a soft, gel-like core. The outer fibrous portion of our discs can weaken due to factors such as daily wear and tear, sudden injury and the body’s natural aging process. Pressure from the inner core of the disc can then stretch to the outer rim, causing the disc to “bulge” outward in one direction.

If left untreated, the disc can continue to bulge until it tears, which is classified as a herniated disc. Both bulging and herniated discs usually remain asymptomatic; however, they can cause discomfort and disability in various parts of the body if the disc compresses an adjacent nerve root or the spinal cord.

Bulging disc symptoms

Because a bulging disc does not always trigger obvious symptoms, many people have a bulging disc without realizing it. As long as the bulging portion of the disc does not press against a nearby nerve, no symptoms occur. When the bulging disc does cause a pinched nerve, however, you may begin to experience symptoms. Some of the most common bulging disc symptoms include:

  • Pain that radiates through the arms or legs
  • Localized pain around the area of the bulging disc
  • Muscle weakness in the lower body
  • Localized or radiating numbness and tingling sensations
  • Neck stiffness

If you are concerned that you’re starting to show signs of a bulging disc, you should take the time to visit our bulging disc symptoms page and also see your physician to confirm your suspicions. If you are experiencing any lingering neck or back pain, it is important to promptly consult a physician who can evaluate your symptoms and diagnose their cause. Before your appointment, try keeping a log of your symptoms and how they respond to physical activity (or inactivity). This will help your physician determine the most appropriate diagnostic methods and treatment plan.

Where can a bulging disc occur?

Bulging disc symptoms may vary according to the location of the injured disc in the spine. A high percentage of bulging discs occur in the lower back, or the lumbar area, of the spine. The most common lumbar bulging disc is seen between lumbar vertebrae L4 and L5, and between vertebrae L5 and S1, causing pain in the L5 nerve or S1 spinal nerve, respectively. The sciatic nerve (the longest and largest nerve in the body) receives neurons from spinal nerves L3 through S3. If the bulging disc impinges upon one or more of these six spinal nerves, then sciatic nerve pain could result. Sciatic pain originates in the low back, radiates through the buttocks, down the back to the leg and could extend all the way to the foot.

The discs between in the neck area, or cervical vertebrae, may also bulge. If nerve root compression occurs in the cervical, or upper, region of the spine, symptoms will manifest in the neck with radiation to the scapular area, shoulder, arm, forearm and hand.

Bulging disc causes

Understanding the causes of bulging discs can help you avoid activities that may put you at risk for developing this condition. A bulging disc occurs when the disc’s tough outer shell weakens, prompting its soft core to press against the shell and bulge outward. This weakening is often related to age. As we grow older, the spine’s discs and other components begin to lose water content and become increasingly brittle. While the natural aging process can’t be avoided, some activities and behaviors accelerate the spinal degeneration process and increase the risk of disc protrusion at a younger age. To help maintain good spinal health, consider:

  • Losing excess weight
  • Eating a balanced and nutrient-rich diet
  • Quitting smoking and other forms of tobacco use
  • Keeping good posture
  • Avoiding high-impact sports and exercises

Additionally, be sure to protect your back when lifting, use good posture, engage in regular low-impact exercise to strengthen core muscles and adopt a routine of gentle stretching. These behaviors can help keep your spine healthy and help you avoid bulging discs in the future.

Despite taking measures to maintain good spine health, bulging discs may sometimes occur in otherwise healthy individuals. There are several techniques that may be used to confirm the presence of a bulging disc, including X-ray imaging, a CT (computed tomography) scan or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging). Following the diagnosis of a symptomatic bulging disc, your physician will recommend treatments designed to relieve symptoms, such as rest, exercises and medication. Many times, symptoms arising from a bulging disc can be effectively managed with these conservative treatments. If conservative treatment fails, however, your physician might recommend surgery to address the underlying cause of pain.

Bulging disc treatment

Your ideal course of bulging disc treatment will vary according to the details of your diagnosis. For example, your symptoms and the specific location of the bulging disc in your spine will influence your treatment plan. Generally speaking, though, a physician may first recommend a course of conservative approaches, such as:

  • Physical therapy — to strengthen and stretch the muscles that support the spine
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) — to provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation
  • Gentle stretching exercises — to elongate the neck and back muscles and promote proper spinal alignment
  • Alternating use of ice packs and heating pads — to numb pain, reduce inflammation, soothe tensed muscles and improve circulation around the injured area
  • Anti-inflammatory injections — to provide temporary yet powerful relief from pain
  • Lifestyle modifications — such as participating regular low-impact exercise, buying more comfortable footwear and wearing a brace to help maintain good posture.

Additionally, some patients choose to explore alternative treatment options, such as yoga, chiropractic care, acupuncture and herbal supplements. The long-term effectiveness of these methods is still up for debate in the medical community, although some patients report positive results. The best way to determine the ideal bulging disc treatment plan for your needs is to speak with your doctor. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or voice any concerns you may have about your diagnosis or the treatment process.

Surgical treatment for bulging discs

Many patients are able to find meaningful relief from bulging disc symptoms through a combination of conservative treatments and lifestyle modifications. Still, surgery to relieve pressure on a compressed nerve or repair the bulging disc may sometimes be clinically appropriate if several weeks or months of conservative treatment does not relieve severe symptoms.
Spinal surgery in the past was a daunting event that included expensive hospitalization, significant surgical risk and an extended, uncomfortable recovery period. Today, this is no longer the case. Advances in technology have made minimally invasive spinal surgery possible. While traditional operations involve long incisions, minimally invasive alternatives address the underlying cause of pain through one or a few small incisions.

Laser Spine Institute — a leader in minimally invasive spine surgery — has helped thousands of patients find lasting relief from neck and back pain since our founding in 2005. Our board-certified surgeons+ possess backgrounds in orthopedics and neurology, and perform minimally invasive decompression and stabilization procedures for patients with bulging discs and many other uncomfortable spinal conditions.

Laser Spine Institute’s approach to bulging disc treatment is unique. Our procedures require a less than 1-inch incision and are performed on an outpatient basis. In fact, many of our patients are up and walking within hours after surgery. When compared to traditional open spine operations, minimally invasive surgery at Laser Spine Institute involves less risk of complication and shorter recovery periods. Additionally, our procedures have received a patient satisfaction score of 98 percent.^

If you have been diagnosed with a bulging disc and conservative management has been unable to provide the relief you need and deserve, you may have options besides highly invasive surgery. We suggest that you view our page dedicated to bulging disc treatment . You could be able to more efficiently reclaim a productive lifestyle with one of the minimally invasive outpatient procedures performed at Laser Spine Institute.

Contact the dedicated team at Laser Spine Institute today to learn more about our surgeons, world-class surgery centers or our minimally invasive approach to bulging disc surgery. We can provide you with a free MRI review* to determine if you may be a candidate for our procedures. We look forward to helping you feel your best and Stand Tall.®

Browse Related Resources