A bulging disc in the spine is a common condition that affects many people each year. However, its prevalence doesn’t mean that it can’t have a tremendous impact on your day-to-day life. A bulging disc occurs when one of the spine’s cushioning discs — which are found in between vertebrae and act as shock absorbers for the spine — weakens to the point that it bulges beyond its intended place in the spinal column.
The spine’s discs are made up of two parts — a tough outer layer (annulus fibrosus) and a gel-like inner core (nucleus pulposus). If the annulus fibrosus becomes weak and brittle, the pressure from the nucleus pulposus can force part of the disc to protrude outward.
The natural aging process
Now that you understand what a bulging disc is, it is only natural to wonder what causes a disc to weaken to the point that it bulges outward. By far, the most common cause of a bulging disc is the body’s natural aging process. Like all other parts of the body, with age, the shock-absorbing discs in the spine lose their water content, making them stiffer, flatter and more prone to damage. This causes a disc to lose its natural elastic recoil. There is no way to prevent the age-related degeneration that the spine’s discs undergo, as the stress that the spine endures daily to facilitate movement in the body inevitably takes its toll. For this reason, while bulging discs can occur at any age, they are more common in individuals who are middle-aged and older, as by this time, the spine has usually undergone degenerative changes, making the discs more prone to damage.
While aging can cause a disc to bulge over time, impact sustained from a traumatic injury can cause a disc in the spine to bulge suddenly. Any minor trauma increases the pressure of the disc’s central core, stressing and stretching the outer layer, which may not return it to its original shape. Additionally, while a bulging disc caused by the natural aging process is most commonly found in those middle-aged and older, a traumatic injury can cause a bulging disc in individuals at any age. Some common causes of a traumatic injury that can lead to a bulging disc include:
- Car accident
- A fall impacting the back
- Work that demands repetitive bending or twisting motions
- Heavy lifting
- Repetitive jarring motions
Carrying around extra body weight increases the stress placed on the spine. The spine is responsible for facilitating everyday movement in the body, and must support the body’s weight to do so. Being overweight can overburden the spine’s discs and potentially lead to degenerative spine conditions such as a bulging disc.
Experts believe that genetics may also increase an individual’s risk of developing degenerative spine conditions such as a bulging disc. Researchers have yet to identify a specific link between genes and the development of a bulging disc, but it is clear that certain types of spinal degeneration can run in families. This is why if you have a family history of degenerative spine conditions, it is especially important that you remain proactive about your spine health and take measures to maintain it, such as by practicing good posture and eating a balanced diet rich in nutrients.
Participation in high-impact sports
Playing high-impact sports can also lead to the development of a bulging disc. First, a bulging disc can occur suddenly due to a traumatic injury sustained during participation in a high-impact sport. Additionally, years of repetitive impact while playing sports can also lead to the early and rapid degeneration of the spine’s components, putting a person at a higher risk of developing a bulging disc later in life. The following sports are considered to be high impact:
Additionally, there are a number of other sports that put extra stress on the spine due to repetitive twisting and bending motions. For example, golf and gymnastics may also lead to a faster rate of degeneration in the spine.
Other bulging disc risk factors
While bulging discs are often caused by degenerative changes as we age, there are other contributing factors which hasten this condition, such as:
- Working in an occupation that requires repetitive lifting, bending, standing or driving
- Improper lifting techniques
- Participation in contact sports
- Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption
- Severe trauma, such as a car accident
- A family history of disc disease
Symptoms of a bulging disc
A bulging disc can occur in any part of the spine, but most commonly develop in the cervical (upper) and lumbar (lower) regions, as these areas of the spine are responsible for enduring the most weight and stress on a daily basis. Bulging discs usually remain asymptomatic unless they compress a nerve root or the spinal cord itself.
When symptoms do occur, they typically originate at the location of the damaged disc and travel along affected nerves. The areas of the body in which symptoms are felt depend on the region of the spine where the nerve compression occurs. For example, a lumbar bulging disc can begin as an aching in the lower back and develop into shooting and burning pains that travel down to the buttocks, thighs and feet. This condition is called sciatica if symptoms are caused by compression of the long sciatic nerve. On the other hand, symptoms of a bulging disc in the cervical spine can present symptoms in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands and fingers.
Regardless of where they occur in the body, the most common symptoms of a bulging disc include:
- Radiating pain
- Muscle weakness
Nonsurgical bulging disc treatment
Treatment for a bulging disc usually begins with a course of treatments prescribed by a physician aimed at managing the symptoms a patient is experiencing, rather than correcting bulging disc itself. These treatments are known as conservative treatments, and may include over-the-counter medication, epidural steroid injections or hot and cold compression. Additionally, gentle stretching, low-impact exercise and physical therapy may be prescribed to stretch and strengthen the muscles that support the spine.
Each patient’s ideal course of bulging disc treatment will vary based on their individual symptoms and overall health. It is important to follow your physician’s treatment instructions exactly, and to keep him or her updated on the progression of your symptoms as you undergo treatment.
In addition to conservative methods of bulging disc treatment, some patients explore alternative treatments on their own, as well. These include:
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Herbal supplements
- Essential oils
Be sure to consult with your doctor before trying any methods of alternative treatment to ensure they will not worsen your condition or interfere with any of your other treatments.
Bulging disc surgery
Your doctor may recommend seeing if you are eligible for bulging disc surgery if weeks or months of nonsurgical treatment do not bring lasting relief. While traditional open surgery is an option that some patients choose, each individual should thoroughly research the surgical options available to them in order to choose the option that is best for their unique situation. For example, USA Spine Care has facilities across America where our orthopedic surgeons and neurosurgeons perform minimally invasive outpatient procedures for patients seeking relief from a bulging disc. One of the minimally invasive surgical procedures performed at USA Spine Care is a discectomy. This procedure can be used to treat a bulging disc and relieve the pain caused by nerve compression by removing the affected disc. We also offer minimally invasive stabilization procedures that are an outpatient alternative to traditional spinal fusion for more severe cases.
At USA Spine Care, our surgeons have helped more than 75,000 patients find relief from chronic conditions like bulging discs. The procedures our board-certified surgeons+ perform at our state-of-the-art facilities across the country are a safer and effective alternative to traditional open spine surgery that offer patients a shorter recovery time with less risk of complication.^
Performed through a less than 1-inch incision, our procedures utilize muscle-sparing techniques that often allow our patients to be up and walking within hours of their surgery.^ And because our procedures are performed on an outpatient basis, our patients are able to rest and recover from the comfort of their own homes following their procedure.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding your condition or one of the procedures that could be performed to relieve your neck or back pain, please contact USA Spine Care today and ask for a free MRI review.* This will help us determine if you are a candidate for our procedures.