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Disc protrusion overview

A disc protrusion happens when a spinal disc becomes worn out and protrudes from between the vertebrae above and below it. This is a common condition usually related to degeneration from aging. While not always painful itself, a disc protrusion can have painful and debilitating symptoms if it puts pressure on a spinal nerve.

If you are someone who has been living with pain and limited mobility from a protruding disc, being able to get back to a better quality of life is important. Learning about this condition is a great first step to choosing a specialist in the Scottsdale area who can offer treatment with the best chance of getting you back to the things you love to do.

Proper diagnosis of a disc protrusion

The term protruding disc is sometimes used interchangeably with a bulging disc and the difference is usually thought to be related to the amount of disc material extending out. Both of these conditions are separate from a herniated disc, which is when the pulpy center of a spinal disc actually pushes through a tear in the tough lining. With a disc bulge or disc protrusion, the center of the disc pushes out against the lining but stays intact.

Ask your primary care physician for clarification if you have heard either of these terms related to your condition and are unsure about the diagnosis. If you are experiencing neck or back pain and have not been diagnosed with a condition, a full physical examination and medical history review followed by diagnostic imagery like an MRI should be able to reveal the source.


Disc protrusion is usually related to age-related disc deterioration. As we all age, our bodies tend to become less able to recover from normal wear and tear and our discs lose water. This is especially true of the spine, which is constructed in such a way that it can be flexible while still supporting the weight of the upper body. The rubbery spinal discs sit between each individual vertebra and basically act as shock absorbers so the spine can bend and twist properly.

When these discs dry out due to declining circulation and other factors, they lose their ability to keep their shape and can bulge out from their normal location in the spinal column. While age is the largest contributor to disc protrusion, there are many other causes that can contribute to or accelerate this process. Other factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Repetitive motion, like from manual labor or sports
  • Traumatic injury, such as an automobile accident
  • Poor posture
  • Tobacco and alcohol consumption

Disc protrusion symptoms

Many degenerative spine conditions, including protruding discs, are not painful by themselves but can cause issues when they compress a nerve in the spine. Nerve compression in the spine can result in both local pain as well as symptoms that radiate to other areas of the body. Radiating symptoms can include shooting pain, tingling, numbness and muscle weakness that travel to the upper or lower body depending on the location of the disc protrusion. Nerve compression in the upper spine will generally cause symptoms in the neck, shoulders and arms while the lower spine will usually cause symptoms in the hips, buttocks and legs. Disc protrusion can cause sciatica, which is specifically when the long sciatic nerve becomes pinched and causes pain and mobility issues in the lower body.

Treatment options

Upon diagnosis, most doctors or spine specialists recommend a course of conservative treatment for disc protrusion. Common methods include short-term rest, physical therapy, over-the-counter pain medication and the use of hot and cold compresses. Many patients are able to find acceptable relief from these methods and are able to engage in regular activities without needing surgery. Spine surgery is usually first considered if symptoms do not improve, or even worsen, after weeks or months of initial treatment.

Traditional open back surgery makes many patients hesitant because it usually involves large incisions that tear supporting muscles, requiring a long recovery period. If you are considering spine surgery but are worried about the risks and difficulties involved, contact Laser Spine Institute. At our state-of-the-art outpatient facility in Scottsdale, we perform minimally spine surgery that uses smaller incisions that spare muscles and lead to shorter recovery times^ for our patients compared to traditional procedures. To learn more and see if you are a potential candidate, reach out to our Care Team today for a no-cost MRI review* today.