A bulging disc in the neck occurs when a disc in the upper (cervical) spine is damaged and weakened to the point that it protrudes outward. This protrusion may be caused by continual pressure placed on the disc by the surrounding vertebrae, causing it to expand beyond the normal boundaries of the spine. Also known as a disc protrusion, bulging discs tend to remain asymptomatic unless the protruding disc material comes into contact with a nerve root or the spinal cord. If this happens, a number of symptoms ranging from mild to debilitating can occur.
Causes of a bulging disc in the neck
A bulging disc in the cervical spine can occur when the fibrous outer ring of a disc in the spine becomes damaged. This can happen suddenly due to a traumatic injury, or over time due to the natural aging process. By far, aging is the most common cause of a bulging disc. Years of wear and tear take their toll on the spine, causing the discs to lose water content. In turn, they become more brittle and prone to damage. When this occurs, the pressure from the disc’s gel-like inner core can stretch the outer layer out of its proper place in the spinal column.
There are a number of factors that can cause a person’s spine to experience degenerative changes earlier in life and at a faster rate. Some of these factors include:
- A family history of degenerative disc disease
- Tobacco use
- Excessive alcohol consumption
- Playing high-impact sports like football
- Working jobs that demand repetitive twisting and bending motions
- Practicing improper lifting techniques
While there is no way to avoid the age-related degeneration that the spine endures, you can help to ensure your spine’s discs and other components do not degenerate faster than normal by avoiding the risk factors mentioned above. To maintain good spine health, be sure to practice good posture, exercise regularly and eat a balanced diet high in nutrients.
Symptoms of a bulging disc in the neck
A bulging disc in the neck typically doesn’t cause symptoms unless it compresses a nearby nerve root or the spinal cord. When this occurs, symptoms tend to begin at the location of the nerve compression and continue along the pathway of the affected nerve. The bulging disc puts pressure on the nerve, potentially disrupting the transmission of the sensory information that the nerve brings to other parts of the body. Symptoms may include pain, numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and a loss of fine motor skills in the fingers. Furthermore, a bulging disc in the neck may cause the aforementioned symptoms to manifest in the following parts of the body:
Diagnosing a bulging disc in the neck
If you are showing symptoms of a bulging disc in the neck, it is important that you promptly schedule an appointment with a doctor who can assess your symptoms and arrive at an accurate diagnosis. If left untreated, the symptoms of a bulging disc can progress to become debilitating. To help ease some of the initial anxiety you may be feeling, here’s an overview of what you can expect at your doctor’s appointment:
- A discussion of your symptoms. Your physician will likely begin by asking you to describe your symptoms, any activities that cause them to worsen and any treatments you have tried. You will probably also discuss your medical history, including whether you have a family history of degenerative spine conditions.
- Physical exam. After the discussion of your symptoms and medical history, your physician will conduct a physical examination to test your reflexes, muscle strength and how your extremities respond to stimuli. He or she may also ask you to move in various ways to test your range of motion and see if certain positions cause you pain.
- Imaging tests. If a bulging disc is suspected, your physician will order a medical imaging test, such as an MRI or a CT scan, to confirm your diagnosis. After, you will need to schedule a follow-up appointment to review the results and discuss your treatment plan.
Nonsurgical treatment for a bulging disc in the neck
Many patients find relief from a bulging disc through conservative treatments, which aim to manage a patient’s symptoms rather than correct the bulging disc itself. There are a number of conservative treatments that are commonly used for patients with a bulging disc, though the specific regimen that is best for you will depend on a number of individual factors. Therefore, while you may be tempted to immediately begin trying treatments you’ve read about on the internet, it is important to wait for your doctor’s instructions, and then follow them exactly.
With that in mind, here are some examples of conservative bulging disc treatments that many patients have found successful in relieving their pain and regaining their quality of life:
- Pain and anti-inflammatory medication
- Muscle relaxants
- Alternating hot and cold compresses
- Epidural steroid injections
- Gentle stretching techniques
- Low-impact exercises
- Physical therapy
- A limited period of rest
Additionally, your doctor may recommend you make lifestyle adjustments, if necessary. For example, losing excess weight can relieve some of the stress on your spine, while limiting tobacco and alcohol consumption can improve blood flow to your spine and help expedite the body’s natural healing process. And, while it may seem obvious, you should avoid heavy lifting and any other activities that may place extra strain on your back and cause your symptoms to worsen.
In addition to conservative treatments, some patients explore alternative treatments on their own. These methods are not considered to be mainstream among professionals in the medical community, though many patients have reported them successful in relieving their pain and other symptoms. These treatments include:
- Chiropractic manipulation
- Essential oils
- Herbal supplements
You should always consult a doctor or spine care specialist before you begin or make any changes to a treatment plan to ensure your health and safety. What’s right for one patient with a bulging disc may not be ideal for another, and your doctor is the only person who can provide you with information as it pertains to your unique situation.
Minimally invasive cervical bulging disc surgery
Many patients are able to achieve meaningful relief and an improved quality of life through a nonsurgical treatment plan alone. However, some individuals may find that their symptoms persist despite conservative and alternative treatment. If several weeks or months of conservative therapy does not provide you with any lasting pain relief, your doctor may recommend spine surgery, such as the minimally invasive procedures performed at USA Spine Care, to address the underlying cause of your symptoms.
The board-certified surgeons+ at USA Spine Care perform several different minimally invasive procedures for patients with a bulging disc:
- Laminotomy or foraminotomy. These procedures may be used to open up space in the spinal canal or foramen (the space where nerve roots branch off from the spinal cord) to relieve nerve compression.
- Discectomy. The portion of the bulging disc that is causing nerve compression is removed.
- Stabilization. The damaged disc is removed entirely and the affected portion of the spine is stabilized through fusion.
Patients have many options available to them when it comes to their bulging disc surgery. While all of the procedures mentioned above can be performed as a traditional open procedure, the lengthy recovery times and large incisions that they come with often hinder a patient’s quality of life following their surgery. At USA Spine Care, our minimally invasive spine surgery provides patients with a safer end effective alternative to traditional open spine surgery, offering a reduced risk of infection and complications, as well as shorter recovery times.^ USA Spine Care is recognized as a leader in minimally invasive spine surgery and we have performed more than 75,000 procedures since our founding in 2005. Our procedures are performed through less than 1-inch incisions and utilize advanced muscle-sparing techniques.
It is our goal to help patients reclaim their lives from neck and back pain as quickly and safely as possible. Our procedures are performed on an outpatient basis in our state-of-the-art surgery centers across the country, and many patients are encouraged to be up and walking within hours of their surgery.^
If you have been diagnosed with a bulging disc and conservative treatments have failed to provide you with meaningful relief, consider the minimally invasive outpatient procedures offered at USA Spine Care. If you have any questions about the advanced procedures that have made us the leader in minimally invasive spine surgery, contact USA Spine Care today. We can also provide you with a free MRI review* in order to determine if you are a potential candidate for our outpatient bulging disc surgery.