A mild bulging disc is not always painful or otherwise uncomfortable. In fact, many people who have this relatively common spine condition –– which often develops along with the natural aging process –– are completely unaware of it. When a bulging disc does cause pain, it is usually a result of spinal nerve compression rather than the damage to the disc itself.
Even if a bulging disc is fairly mild, spinal nerve compression can occur when the outer wall of the damaged spinal disc weakens and bulges out of alignment with the surrounding vertebrae. Unlike a herniated disc, which actually ruptures and leaks fluid, a bulging disc remains intact. Nevertheless, if a portion of the disc invades the spinal canal, it can cause this already limited space to become even narrower, especially if other age-related degenerative changes have developed, such as inflamed facet joints and bone spurs. As a result of the spinal narrowing, a displaced disc can potentially pressure the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root, which must flow freely through this normally open channel in order to function properly.
A pressured spinal nerve can produce a number of painful symptoms. Because the resulting discomfort can sometimes affect distant areas of the body, it may not be readily recognized as a sign of a spinal issue. For this reason, it’s important to see a physician who can identify the source of any unusual symptoms and provide an accurate diagnosis.
What are the symptoms of nerve compression caused by a mild bulging disc?
If a mild bulging disc protrudes into the spinal canal and presses on the spinal cord or a spinal nerve root, a variety of uncomfortable sensations can develop in any part of the body served by the affected nerve. Depending on a number of factors, including the location of the compressed nerve and amount of pressure it is under, the resulting symptoms can range from mild tingling and tenderness to debilitating pain and incontinence (rare).
Symptoms of a mild bulging disc in the neck
A mild bulging disc that compresses a spinal nerve in the neck (cervical spine) can cause:
- A stiff neck
- Pain and tenderness in the neck and upper back
- Difficulty bending and turning the neck
- Neck muscle spasms
- Deep pain in or near a shoulder blade
- Muscle weakness, numbness and pins-and-needles sensations that radiate from the neck through one or both shoulders and travel down the arms to the hands and fingers
- Difficulty walking and muscle weakness, numbness and pins-and-needles sensations that travel down one or both legs to the feet and toes (if the spinal cord is compressed)
Symptoms of a mild bulging disc in the middle back
- A mild bulging disc that compresses a spinal nerve in the middle back (thoracic spine) can cause:
- Sharp pain in the middle back
- Numbness and pins-and-needles sensations around the chest and ribs
- Spinal stiffness and inflexibility
- Discomfort when sitting or bending
- Difficulty standing, walking or sitting for prolonged periods of time
- A stooped posture
Symptoms of a mild bulging disc in the lower back
A mild bulging disc that compresses a spinal nerve in the lower back (lumbar spine) can cause:
- Low back pain
- Muscle weakness, numbness and pins-and-needles sensations that radiate from the lower back through one or both buttocks and travel down the legs to the feet and toes (sciatica)
- Overactive reflexes that cause muscle contractions (spasticity) in one or both legs
- Bladder or bowel incontinence (a rare but serious complication known as cauda equina syndrome that warrants immediate medical attention)
Often, spinal nerve compression symptoms are initially mild and gradually progress. The discomfort may also worsen with certain body positions, movements and activities, such as bending, lifting, coughing and laughing.
How is a mild bulging disc treated?
In many cases, when a mild bulging disc requires treatment, it can often be accomplished conservatively without the need for surgery. The goal of treatment is to relieve painful symptoms by reducing the pressure on the affected nerve and helping the damaged disc return to its normal shape and position in the spinal column. There are typically several steps involved in this process.
Step 1 – Managing spinal inflammation
After confirming that a bulging disc is the source of pain or other symptoms, a physician will usually recommend a conservative treatment plan that incorporates one or more therapies that can reduce spinal inflammation, which in turn can relieve painful pressure on a compressed spinal nerve. Some options include:
- A brief period of bed rest (two to three days at most)
- Activity modifications to avoid body positions and movements that stress the spine, such as bending and lifting
- Weight loss, if necessary
- Moist heat and ice pack applications
- Supportive neck or back bracing
- Over-the-counter or prescription nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Epidural steroid injections
Step 2 – Restoring spinal function
After the pain and inflammation subside to the point that physical activity can be comfortably tolerated, a physician may recommend starting a customized rehabilitation program designed to restore proper spinal alignment, enhance range of motion, increase muscle strength, relieve tension and improve endurance. A physical therapy program for addressing a bulging disc may include:
- Strength-training exercises
- Low-impact aerobic activities, such as walking, swimming and cycling
- Specific bulging disc exercises , such as pelvic tilts, knee-to-chest stretches, shoulder blade stretches, bridges and back extensions
- Ultrasound therapy
- Therapeutic massage
- Spinal decompression therapy
Step 3 – Preventing bulging disc recurrence
Because bulging discs and other degenerative spine conditions are often age-related, back pain and other nerve compression symptoms have a tendency to come and go over the years. Although it’s impossible to avoid getting older, it is possible to lessen the effects of aging on the spine. The best way to minimize the likelihood of a bulging disc recurrence is to adopt and maintain positive lifestyle practices, which can promote good health in general and good spine health in particular. Some potentially beneficial habits include:
- Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight
- Stretching and exercising regularly
- Consuming a nutritious, anti-inflammatory diet
- Practicing good posture
- Learning and using proper body mechanics and safe lifting techniques
- Taking regular breaks from periods of prolonged sitting or standing
- Wearing comfortable, supportive, low-heeled shoes
- Managing stress
- Avoiding all forms of tobacco use
- Consuming alcoholic beverages in moderation (or not at all)
What is the prognosis for a mild bulging disc?
Bulging disc symptoms often resolve on their own with time, but the recovery process is not necessarily quick. The pain may take a few weeks to stabilize before a gradual improvement becomes apparent. Many people find that their bulging disc symptoms respond favorably to conservative treatment within approximately six weeks, allowing them to return to most daily activities soon afterward.
In some cases, the discomfort associated with spinal nerve compression caused by a bulging disc may persist or worsen, even after several months of conservative treatment. While surgery is often unnecessary to address a mild bulging disc, it may be appropriate if the resulting pain is severe or debilitating. If you’re in this situation, it may be time to explore your surgical treatment options with an orthopedic spine surgeon or neurosurgeon. Additionally, emergency surgery may be necessary to address cauda equina syndrome in order to prevent lasting nerve damage. Therefore, if you have been diagnosed with a bulging disc and are experiencing bladder or bowel incontinence, you should proceed directly to the nearest hospital emergency room.
Can a mild bulging disc be treated with minimally invasive surgery?
You might understandably hesitate to consider elective bulging disc surgery due to your valid concerns about the risks associated with traditional open spine surgery. But, there’s no need to resign yourself to a lifetime of pain –– you may have another option. For instance, the surgeons at USA Spine Care –– the leader in minimally invasive spine surgery –– perform minimally invasive stabilization and decompression procedures, including discectomy, foraminotomy and laminectomy, that are safer and effective alternatives to traditional open neck and back procedures.^ The goal of spinal decompression surgery is to relieve pressure on a compressed nerve by removing tissue, such as a portion of a damaged disc that is directly pressing on the nerve, or a portion of the vertebral arch (lamina) to create more space within the spinal canal. If necessary, we can also perform a minimally invasive stabilization procedure to add support and stability to the spinal column.
When performing minimally invasive bulging disc surgery , the surgeons at USA Spine Care utilize state-of-the-art surgical techniques and technology, allowing us to offer our patients a reduced risk of complications and shorter recovery time compared to traditional open spine surgery.^ With an emphasis on providing convenient, patient-centered spine care, we’ve established outpatient surgery centers throughout the United States. Since 2005, we have helped more than 75,000 patients reclaim their lives from neck and back pain, earning a 98 percent patient satisfaction^ score.
If you’d like to explore your surgical treatment options for a mild but painful bulging disc, contact USA Spine Care. Our team provide a free MRI review* to help you determine if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive surgery.