Bulging disc symptoms occur when a weakened spinal disc bulges out of its normal perimeter in the spine, often due to the body’s natural aging process, and puts pressure on a nerve or the spinal cord. This pressure can send pain signals along the length of the affected nerve as well as disrupt the transmission of sensory information, resulting in discomfort in various areas of the body. These symptoms can have a serious impact on your life, affecting time with family, work or leisure activities. A few of the most common symptoms of a bulging disc include:
- Radiating pain in the legs or arms
- Localized pain in the neck or back
- Muscle weakness or spasms
- Numbness or tingling sensations
The specific location of the bulging disc in your spine will influence your symptoms and where in the body you may experience them. A bulging disc and the resulting symptoms can originate in any of the three regions that have spinal discs. These sections are the cervical spine (neck), thoracic spine (middle back) and lumbar spine (lower back), with the nerve roots in each region branching off and traveling to different locations in the body.
If you or someone you know is dealing with a bulging disc, learning more about this condition’s symptoms and causes can be an important step in the treatment process. The following information is intended to help you better work with a doctor or specialist to develop a care plan to give you the best chance of returning to a healthy, active lifestyle.
Cervical bulging disc symptoms
Cervical (neck) bulging discs are one of the most common causes of neck pain. The cervical area comprises the top seven vertebrae in the spine. Symptoms of nerve root compression in the cervical spine can include pain, tingling, numbness and weakness in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers. Headaches may also occur. Spinal cord compression in the cervical spine can result in myelopathy, a group of symptoms that can include difficulty walking, a feeling of heaviness in the legs and loss of fine motor skills in the fingers.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, a cervical bulging disc may be to blame. A few of the most common factors that can contribute to a cervical bulging disc includes poor posture, injuries such as whiplash, genetic spinal conditions and the natural wear and tear that the body endures with age.
Thoracic bulging disc symptoms
The thoracic area of the spine spans from the collar bone to the end of the rib cage and consists of 12 vertebrae. Bulging discs are less common in the thoracic region, but when they do occur, the symptoms can include pain in the upper back that sometimes radiates to the chest or stomach. Additionally, depending on the affected nerves, symptoms may also be experienced in the lower body. The causes of a thoracic bulging disc may include a sudden injury to the spine or wear and tear from everyday activities.
The nature of these symptoms can lead a patient to incorrectly suspect a problem with the heart, lungs or gastrointestinal tract, so it is important to promptly consult with a physician to obtain an accurate diagnosis.
Lumbar bulging disc symptoms
Spanning from the waist to the hips, the lumbar region of the spine includes five, or sometimes six, vertebrae. Lumbar disc problems are a widespread cause of lower back pain, which can be dull, sharp or burning and radiate to the hips, buttocks, legs and feet. Lumbar bulging discs can also result in muscle weakness, numbness and tingling in the legs, as well as muscle spasms and reduced coordination. Symptoms of a lumbar bulging disc can worsen with coughing, sneezing and bending. When a lumbar bulging disc exerts pressure on the sciatic nerve, the resulting symptoms are commonly referred to as sciatica . In rare cases, patients with a lumbar bulging disc might experience a loss of bladder or bowel control. If this happens, the patient should go to the emergency room immediately, as bladder or bowel incontinence can indicate cauda equina syndrome, a condition requiring immediate surgery.
Lumbar bulging discs can severely limit your range of motion and impact your quality of life, as this region of the spine is responsible for bearing the weight of the upper body and facilitating a variety of everyday movements. To help avoid injury to the lumbar spine, be sure to practice good posture, engage in regular low-impact exercise and eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet.
Treatment options for bulging disc symptoms
It is important to promptly seek treatment for any new or unusual neck or back pain you are feeling. If left untreated, a bulging disc may progress to a herniated disc, which occurs when the disc’s outer layer completely tears and causes its inner contents to seep into the spinal canal. Symptoms of a herniated disc may be more severe and difficult to treat.
Treatment for bulging discs in the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions of the spine will vary according to your overall health and the severity your symptoms. After confirming a diagnosis, many physicians will first suggest a course of conservative therapies to relieve pressure on compressed nerves, reduce symptoms and improve mobility. For example, a bulging disc treatment plan may include:
- Physical therapy — to strengthen and elongate the muscle that support the spine
- Medication — to reduce everyday pain and inflammation
- Bracing — to promote proper posture and spinal alignment
- Hot/cold therapy — to reduce inflammation, soothe tensed muscles and increase circulation around the injury
- Epidural steroid injection — to temporarily numb severe pain and reduce inflammation
You might also be encouraged to make healthy lifestyle choices that can benefit your spinal health and aid in your recovery. Your physician may suggest that you try losing excess weight, quitting tobacco use and engaging in low-impact exercises such as swimming or yoga. Adopting a routine of gentle stretching can also improve your spinal health and help prevent future injuries.
Another approach to treating bulging disc symptoms is alternative treatment. When used in conjunction with conservative care, alternative therapies such as chiropractic care, acupuncture, herbal supplements and essential oils may help you get back to feeling like yourself. It’s important to note, however, that the effectiveness of alternative methods are still up for debate in many medical circles.
Before your appointment, consider keeping a journal of your symptoms and what activities or movements seem to make them worse. This information will help your doctor determine the most appropriate diagnostic method and an effective treatment plan. Additionally, never be afraid to ask questions about your diagnosis or voice any concerns you may have. With the right information from your physician, you’ll be able to make confident and informed decisions about your spinal health.
Bulging disc surgery
Many patients dealing with bulging disc symptoms in the cervical, thoracic or lumbar area of the spine are able to find meaningful pain relief and a return to normal activity with conservative treatment options, avoiding the need for surgery. Still, surgery may be a viable treatment option if several weeks or months of conservative methods fails to relieve disruptive symptoms. Advances in spinal surgery have reduced the invasiveness of many procedures, allowing more patients to address the underlying cause of their pain through surgery and return to healthy, happy lifestyle.
With backgrounds in orthopedics and neurology, the experienced and board-certified surgeons+ at USA Spine Care perform minimally invasive spine surgery as an alternative to traditional open neck or back procedures. By using a less than 1-inch incision and other muscle-sparing techniques, we can treat spine conditions like bulging and herniated discs in any area of the spine while offering patients a shorter recovery time and less risk of complication than traditional open spine operations. In fact, many of our patients are up and walking within hours after surgery.^ Thanks in part to our minimally invasive techniques, USA Spine Care’s stabilization and decompression procedures are associated with an impressive patient satisfaction score of 98 percent.^
If you are considering surgery to relieve bulging disc symptoms because you have exhausted conservative treatment options, consider contacting USA Spine Care. We will offer you a free MRI review* to help determine if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive procedures. Our team will also be happy to answer any questions you may have about our surgeons, world-class surgery centers or approach to bulging disc surgery.