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Bulging disc information

A bulging disc is a disc in the spine that has flattened and expanded outward due to compression from the surrounding vertebrae. This condition can result from the natural aging process of the spine or from a serious or sudden injury.

Causes of a bulging disc

A bulging disc can have several causes, but the most common cause is often the natural weakening of the spine with age.

The spine is responsible for supporting and stabilizing the body, which means there is ample amount of pressure applied to the discs and vertebrae during daily movement. Years of bending and twisting can wear down the supporting discs in the spine, while excess weight can cause the vertebrae to compress the discs and joints.

As years of natural movement and added weight gain cause the vertebrae to compress the discs, a disc can begin to wear down and bulge. A bulging disc develops when a disc’s tough outer layer begins to loose elasticity, allowing the disc to expand outward when being compressed by the two surrounding vertebrae.

In some cases, a bulging disc can compress a nerve root either in the spinal canal or the spinal cord itself. This can cause debilitating pain and symptoms, and often indicates that treatment is necessary.

Symptoms of a bulging disc

In some cases, a bulging disc can begin to form in the spine without any indicating symptoms. In this situation, the disc will either naturally heal itself or it will continue to worsen until it compresses a nerve. If a nerve root is compressed, the following symptoms of a bulging disc may develop:

  • Pain, local or radiating
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Tingling
  • Burning sensation
  • Limited mobility

A pinched nerve from a bulging disc can cause symptoms in the location of the damaged disc and along the pathway of the spine. For example, nerve roots in the lower back extend through the buttocks and into the legs and feet. If one of these lumbar nerve roots is compressed by a bulging disc, the symptoms listed above may emerge anywhere along the nerve pathway — meaning you could experience numbness and tingling in your leg or foot.

Diagnosis of a bulging disc

If you’ve been experiencing these symptoms for a week or more without relief from at-home treatments, such as hot or cold therapy and rest, you should schedule an appointment with your physician. Your physician can run a series of tests to diagnose the cause of your symptoms and determine the best course of treatment for your needs.

The first thing to expect during your appointment is a series of questions regarding your symptoms and medical history. While many spine conditions project similar symptoms, there may be some information attained during this conversation that will help you doctor pinpoint the cause of your pain. These questions may include:

  • At what location of your body are your symptoms the most painful?
  • Is there any activity or position that makes your pain better or worse?
  • Have you had a sudden fall or injury in the last six months?

In addition to the questions, your doctor will likely perform a physical examination and order imaging tests, like an MRI or CT scan, to provide a more accurate diagnosis of your condition. If it is determined that a bulging disc is the source of your pain, there are several treatment options available to help you get back to your normal lifestyle.

Conservative treatments for a bulging disc

Conservative treatments for a bulging disc often include a combination the following methods:

  • Pain medication
  • Physical therapy
  • Chiropractic care
  • Low-impact exercises
  • Stretches and yoga
  • Weight loss and lifestyle changes
  • Corticosteroid injections

These treatments often take several months before any significant pain relief is felt, but many patients find effective ways to manage their bulging disc symptoms with conservative therapy. However, if you have not experienced relief after several months, your doctor may recommend spine surgery for more advanced treatment.

Surgical treatment for a bulging disc

The most common type of spine surgery used to treat a bulging disc is a discectomy, though there are sometimes other surgical options.

A discectomy is a procedure used to treat a bulging disc by removing the small portion of the disc that is bulging past normal parameters and impacting a nerve root. When the damaged portion is removed, the nerve root can decompress, easing the symptoms of pain and discomfort.

This type of surgery can be performed as a traditional open back surgery or minimally invasive spine surgery. During the minimally invasive discectomy procedure at Laser Spine Institute, a small incision is made in the neck or back, often less than 1-inch long, to reach the damaged disc in the spine. The surrounding muscles are spared unnecessary damage, allowing patients to experience a shorter recovery time^ and lower risk of complication compared to the more invasive traditional open back surgery.

To find out if you are a candidate for one of our minimally invasive procedures, contact Laser Spine Institute today and request a no-cost MRI review.* We can help guide you through your available treatment options so you can be confident about your spine care decision.