A bulging disc can occur when the spine becomes severely compressed through the pressure of continual movements or spinal degeneration, which can cause a disc to flatten and expand. Many bulging discs form as a result of natural degeneration of the spine. Sometimes, a bulging disc can naturally heal without medical assistance.
While a very mild bulging disc may be able to heal itself, a more advanced bulging disc may require medical intervention. For example, if a bulging disc extends so far beyond the spinal column that it impacts a nerve root in the spinal canal, certain treatment methods may be required to not only treat the bulging disc but also to make sure the nerve root is released.
Common Symptoms of a Bulging Disc
When a bulging disc causes nerve compression, there are a variety of symptoms that can develop and cause once-routine daily activities to become a chore. This condition is most common in the cervical spine (neck area) and lumbar spine (lower back area), and the location of an individual’s symptoms are directly related to the area of the spine that has been affected. For instance, a bulging disc in the neck area can result in symptoms affecting the upper back, shoulders and arms, while a damaged disc in the lower back can cause pain in the hips, buttocks and legs.
Some of the more common symptoms of a bulging disc include:
- Numbness, tingling and muscle weakness. When a nerve is compressed it can lead to a variety of sensations that can appear in other parts of the body.
- Chronic pain. The pain may be localized to the area of the spine that houses the damaged disc or it may radiate along a nerve pathway to other areas of the body.
- Balance issues. Muscle weakness in the legs could be directly related to a damaged disc in the back and could affect balance and coordination.
Diagnosis of a Bulging Disc
If you have a bulging disc, you should consult your doctor or a spine care specialist about whether you need treatment for your condition. There are a variety of different doctors who treat conditions of the spine, so make sure you find the one that is right for you. Options include:
- Your primary care physician — who likely practices general medicine and will be able to either provide a full diagnosis and treatment plan or recommend a specialist
- An orthopedic surgeon — who uses both nonsurgical and surgical means to treat conditions involving the musculoskeletal system, such as spine conditions, degenerative diseases, sports injuries, musculoskeletal trauma and congenital disorders.
- A neurologist — who specializes in diagnosing and treating disorders of the nervous system and is trained to assess the causes and symptoms of neck and back pain
- A physiatrist — who specializes in diagnosing and treating diseases of the musculoskeletal system primarily using physical means, such as physical therapy and medications
- A chiropractor — who specializes in nonsurgical treatment of degenerative spinal conditions, such as bulging discs, using spinal manipulation which can improve functionality, restore range of motion and reduce nerve compression
Most likely, the bulging disc diagnostic process will involve a review of your personal and family medical history as well as a physical exam to gauge your flexibility and pain levels and pinpoint the source of your discomfort. Your doctor may also recommend an MRI or CT scan to determine the location and severity of your condition in order to accurately prescribe a medication or other treatment, if necessary. If the specialist determines that your bulging disc may heal naturally, you may still to be prescribed a pain medication to help you with the symptoms while you wait for the disc to heal.
Bulging Disc Repair: Conservative Treatments
The goal of conservative bulging disc treatment is to relieve the excess pressure on the disc so it can potentially return to its natural shape and perform its role as a shock absorber for the spine. This can be accomplished through several methods, including reducing the amount of weight the spine carries on a day-to-day basis and strengthening the muscles that provide support to the spine. Therefore, lifestyle changes are an important part of any conservative treatment plan.
Losing excess weight
The first, and most important, step is to change your diet and exercise habits so that you can lose any extra pounds that may be contributing to the pressure on your spine. By losing weight, you will likely be able to lessen the pressure on the bulging disc and potentially reduce the level of nerve compression.
Eliminate the use of tobacco products
Tobacco usage has been shown to reduce blood flow to the spine, which can encourage degeneration and slow the healing process. Heavy alcohol use may also slow the body’s natural circulation.
Modify your activities
To help avoid further injury, you should eliminate high-impact activities that can increase the inflammation in your spine, such as running and contact sports. It’s also important that you evaluate your day-to-day life and eliminate frequent bending or heavy lifting, which can put a great deal of added strain on the spine.
Exercise and other options
Other conservative treatments that your physician may recommend include stretching and strengthening bulging disc exercises to help improve flexibility and build the core muscles supporting the spine. Periods of rest, corticosteroid injections, physical therapy and the alternating use of hot and cold compresses can help reduce pain and inflammation during the healing process.
Alternative Treatments to Repair a Bulging Disc
Though their clinical effectiveness is still up for debate, alternative treatments are yet another possibility to consider when trying to repair a bulging disc. Popular options include:
- Chiropractic manipulation. This common form of alternative care treats bulging discs by manually realigning the spine to restore functionality and reduce pressure. A chiropractor may also use transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) therapy to relieve pain and help speed the healing process.
- Massage therapy. In addition to relieving muscle tension, massage can increase blood flow and circulation to help reduce muscle soreness or soft tissue injury.
- Restorative yoga. Yoga can both stretch the muscles to relieve tension in the spine and strengthen the muscles that support the spine, promoting better mobility.
- Pilates. Similar to yoga, Pilates is a form of exercise that concentrates on strengthening the body with an emphasis on core strength, flexibility and posture.
- Acupuncture. This ancient Chinese form of physical therapy uses small needles to stimulate specific points in the body, which causes the nervous system to provide temporary pain relief.
Surgical Treatments to Repair a Bulging Disc
If you have attempted conservative treatment for several weeks or months and your symptoms haven’t responded, you may need to consider your surgical options. While your physician may recommend a traditional open spine procedure, USA Spine Care performs minimally invasive spine surgery, which is a clinically appropriate alternative to treat bulging discs and other degenerative spinal conditions.^
Some of the minimally invasive outpatient procedures we offer include:
- Discectomy In this form of surgery, our board-certified surgeons+ remove the portion of a disc that is causing nerve compression. This is done through a less than 1-inch incision utilizing muscle-sparing techniques, which helps to speed the recovery process.
- Foraminotomy. This decompression procedure involves the removal of a portion of a vertebra to expand a foramina, which is a passageway through which nerve roots travel from the spinal cord to other parts of the body.
- Laminotomy. The lamina is a thin piece of bone that serves as an archway covering the spinal cord. In this procedure, a portion of the lamina is removed to increase the space in the spinal canal reduce nerve compression.
- Stabilization. A minimally invasive stabilization procedure can provide the same benefits of a traditional open spine procedure without the same degree of muscle disruption. Minimally invasive stabilization involves the removal of the damaged disc and the insertion of bone grafts, eliminating the need for bulky hardware implants and the fusion of the surrounding vertebrae.
For more information about the advantages of our outpatient procedures for a bulging disc and to learn if our minimally invasive spine surgery would be an option for relieving your chronic neck or back pain, please contact USA Spine Care today and request a free MRI review.*
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