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Bulging Disc Treatment -- Bulging Disc Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment Options

Updated on August 7, 2012

A bulging disc is characterized by neck or back pain, sharp-shooting radiating pain to the limbs, and weakness of certain muscles.  Most commonly referred to a a herniated disc,  a bulging disc is a distressing condition of the neck or back that irritates a nerve, causing the symptoms of neck, back, and/or leg pain.   Having a slipped disc can not only be very painful, but also stressful and emotionally draining.  If you are among the sufferers with this debilitating condition, don't be discouraged; there are a number of bulging disc treatment options available that can help give you relief and your life back.

What is a Bulging Disc?

Before finding a treatment for bulging disc, you should have a basic understanding of what it is and how it happens. Your spine is made up of bones known as vertebrae, which are cushioned by spinal discs. Spinal discs are soft and made up of cartilage which assists with movement of the spine and shock absorption. Sometimes, this soft disc becomes more rigid with age and loses elasticity, leaving it vulnerable to injury and damage. When the disc becomes rigid, it can rupture, and a portion of the disc bulges out from between the vertebrae. As serious as this may sound, the actual bulging is not the cause of pain. The problem occurs when the bulged disc compresses or pinches the spinal cord and spinal nerves.

A herniated disc may occur in any part of the spine, but it is most common in the lower back (lumbar spine). However, there are also cases of slipped discs in the neck (cervical) and upper back (thoracic regions) as well.

Bulging disc causes may include:

  • A fall or accident that injures the spine
  • Repetitive straining if the spine
  • Wear and tear of a disc due to aging
  • Excessive weight (obesity)
  • Uneven pressure on the disc due to muscle imbalances.

Bulging disc symptoms

If a disc is not pressing on a nerve, there may be no symptoms at all. The problem occurs when a bulging disc compresses a nerve root, it may produce symptoms including:

  • pain, numbness, tingling, and weakness in the area in which the nerve travels.
  • If compression occurs in the lower back, it can cause sensations of pain and numbness in the buttocks and down the legs, a condition known as sciatica

photo source: / CC BY-SA 2.0
photo source: / CC BY-SA 2.0

Bulging Disc Treatment Options

There are two types of bulging disc treatments available: non-surgical and surgical.  Most slipped discs cases are  treated without surgery by simple lifestyle modifications.  This may include:

  • Cold/Hot treatments.  For a new injury, cold packs or ice can be placed around the area to immediately relieve pain and inflammation. After a few days, you can apply a warm compress to the area for comfort and relief.

  •  Modification of daily activities and exercises.  For intense lumbar pain, you will want to avoid activities that aggravate symptoms, such as bending, lifting and twisting the spine, improper reaching, using exercise machines that will bend the spine, and sitting for a prolonged period.  This does not mean you should not exercise, however.  Exercise (recommended by a doctor) is essential  to regaining the spine's flexibility and strength b

  •  Physical therapy treatment for bulging discs.  A physical therapist can show you exercises and positions to help minimize herniated disc pain.  A therapist may also help you to maximize your stability and improve core strength to avoid future injury.

  • Chiropractic treatment.  A chiropractor can help relieve pressure off of nerves by adjusting the vertebra.

  • Massage Therapy .  Rolfing, a massage technique that corrects the body's structure, can be another treatment for herniated discs.   This type of massage helps  soften the muscles around the spine that may be causing further impingement of the nerves.

  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Patients with mild to moderate pain are usually treated with over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen or naproxen.  For spasms, a doctor may also prescribe muscle relaxants.  If these type of drugs are ineffective, a doctor may opt to prescribe narcotics for a limited period.  Alternatively, a doctor may prescribe nerve pain pills or corticosteroid injections directly into the spine.

With proper care and slight lifestyle modifications, most bulging discs are able to heal on their own with time. Most people with a herniated disc get better within  6 months.  However, roughly 10% of people with a bulging disc will need surgery at some point.  A surgical herniated disc treatment may work for your if:

  • your symptoms fail to improve after six weeks of non-surgical treatments
  • you aren't able to stand or walk
  • a disc fragment lodges in your spinal canal, pressing on a nerve.

Bulging discs are corrected by a surgery known as a microdiskectomy.  A microdiskectomy is an open procedure in which some the vertebrae are chipped away to get to the herniated discs and compressed nerves.  During a microdiskectomy:

  • the patient is placed under general anesthesia, or in some instances, localized anesthesia by numbing the back with injections
  • small amounts of bone and ligaments are cut and removed to get access to the herniated disc
  • small surgical instruments are used to relieve pressure on the nerve by removing the herniated part of the disc and other fragments
  • incision is then closed with staples or stitches.

Most people make a quick recovery and resume normal activities within 2-6 weeks.

There are less invasive approaches to surgery as well.  These techniques use small instruments and the surgeon does little to no cutting of the spine.


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