What is a bulging disc and why is the condition so common among athletes?

A bulging disc is a condition that occurs when a spinal disc becomes weakened and loses it shape, sometimes bulging outward into the spinal canal. Each disc has a soft center (nucleus pulposus) surrounded by a firm outer border (annulus fibrosus). This construction allows the discs to serve as effective shock absorbers for the surrounding vertebrae during physical activity.

While a bulging disc does not always cause pain or require treatment, it can cause problems if it takes up too much space in the spinal canal and creates pressure on the spinal cord or a nerve root. This can sometimes lead to pain, weakness, numbness and tingling sensations.

Are athletes particularly susceptible to disc problems?

Bulging discs are common among both athletes and nonathletes alike. However, because athletes are generally in better physical condition than members of the general public, they may be even less prone to developing spinal conditions like a bulging disc — and more likely to heal quickly when they do occur. One reason is the enhanced muscle strength of a typical athlete. If the muscles that provide support and stability to the spine are strong, they can assume more of the body’s weight load as well as some of the stress that would otherwise shift onto the spine, thus reducing the likelihood of injury.

With that said, it still might seem as though athletes develop spinal conditions more often than nonathletes. But, that could be simply because we hear more about them. When a bulging disc causes symptoms, the condition could potentially sideline an athlete for weeks, months or even an entire season. In the world of professional sports, this less-than-ideal situation is usually discussed at length among coaches, commentators and fans.

Of course, anyone who participates in intensive physical activities, such as sports that involve repetitive running, jumping, twisting, turning and physical contact, can potentially stress his or her spine. In addition to resulting in sudden injuries, the effects of spinal stress can accumulate over time, sometimes leading to conditions like a bulging disc.

What can be done if bulging disc symptoms occur?

Given time, a bulging disc may heal on its own. In the interim, any associated symptoms can usually be managed with conservative treatments like rest, pain relievers, anti-inflammatory medications, cold compresses, physical therapy, epidural steroid injections and muscle relaxants. Typically, four to six weeks of conservative treatment is recommended before bulging disc surgery is considered. For maximum effectiveness, a treatment plan should be fully customized to meet a patient’s specific needs.

Although surgery is generally viewed as a last resort, the surgeons at Laser Spine Institute can perform minimally invasive outpatient surgery to address a bulging disc when necessary. If you’re currently exploring your surgical options, you may want to find out if you’re a candidate for minimally invasive spine surgery at Laser Spine Institute. To learn more, contact us today.

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