An Unfortunate Part of the Aging Process
A bulging disc occurs when a disc in the spine becomes compressed and flattens, extending into the spinal canal. In severe cases, the bulged disc expands so far that it breaks open, leaking the inner fluid into the spinal canal and putting pressure on a nerve root.
In between each of the vertebrae of your spinal column are intervertebral discs with layers of cartilage that add cushion and allow the spine to bear weight. For a healthy patient, each disc has a fibrous outer layer filled with a jelly-like fluid. If the patient suffers from a bulging disc, that means the disc has expanded and moved beyond the usual parameters of the spinal column. The fibrous outer layer of the disc extends beyond the space it usually occupies, extending outward to avoid tearing.
Bulging discs are a part of the normal aging process of the spine. A bulging disc flattens under years of pressure from the spinal column. Bulging disks that have not broken open or are not causing nerve impingement are likely to remain completely asymptomatic. In mild cases, the bulging disc is never noticed, and the body repairs itself.
What are the Causes?
The vertebrae of the spine experience years of pressure and compression caused by weight gain and repetitive motion. The intervertebral discs are prone to shrinkage and water loss as people grow older. The fibrous outer portion of the intervertebral discs is weakened, allowing pressure from the central, jelly-like core of the disc to stretch to the outer ring. This stretching causes one or more of these discs to bulge, allowing the inner material of the disc to shift out of place. Old age, degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis, and height are potential contributing factors to the development of bulging discs.
Although the weakening and drying of the intervertebral discs are inevitable, some avoidable activities speed up the development of disc bulges.
Keep in mind:
- Excess body weight exacerbates wear and tear of the parts of the spine. Exercise regularly to strengthen core muscles supporting body weight.
- Excessive back and neck strain— movements like twists, turns, and bends can contribute to bulging discs
- Failure to stretch before exercises and intense activities can lead to muscle strains, sprains, and damage to the neck and back
- Poor posture can put additional pressures on the intervertebral discs
- Protect your back when lifting! Improper lifting techniques and not using a brace when lifting can damage the spine
- Quitting tobacco is necessary: the ingredients in cigarettes can cause the intervertebral discs to weaken and dehydrate
Symptoms of a Bulging Disc
Bulging discs are relatively common and usually cause no pain. If the bulging discs impinge on the spinal cord or the nerve root exiting the spinal canal, symptoms occur. These symptoms cause discomfort and disability in various parts of the body. Shooting pains, which usually happen when the pressure on a nerve increases due to sudden movement, is the most commonly described symptom. Tingling or numbness in the extremities, muscle weakness, loss of fine motor skills, and pain that travels to the extremities are all caused by the compression from the disc pinching the spinal cord.
The location of the compressed nerve causing the symptoms depends on the part of the spine where this disc damage is occurring. In the cervical region of the spine, known commonly as the neck area, pain can radiate from the head, neck, shoulders, arms, elbows, wrists, hands, fingers. In the lumbar region or lower back, pain can radiate to the buttocks, legs, feet, abdomen, and hips. In the thoracic region or the middle area between the neck and lower back, pain radiates through the chest, back, abdomen, and hands.
Treatment for a Bulging Disc
Your physician will evaluate your medical history, with you and ask questions about your specific symptoms— such as their origin and location, and may also ask you about your family history.
Then they will perform a physical exam to test your range of motion and find the source of your discomfort. To diagnose the bulging disc entirely, the physician will administer an MRI, CT scan, or X-ray.
The aim of the treatment for a bulging disc is to reduce the swelling of the disc and remove pressure from the nerves surrounding it. It can be treated through conservative means that are non-invasive and designed to relieve symptoms.
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, when used in combination with other traditional treatments, can help lessen the symptoms of a bulging disc. Treatments like rest, warm or cold compresses, exercises, and medication are emphasized. Resting and stretching muscles properly, restorative yoga, physical therapy, low-impact exercises, chiropractic manipulation, acupuncture, and hot and cold compresses are all forms of conservative treatment that have worked for many patients.
Most of the time, symptoms arising from a bulging disc will abate with these traditional treatments. If conservative treatments fail, your physician might recommend surgery.
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