Spinal Problems Discs Bulging

Both bulging and herniated discs involve the intervertebral discs that separate the vertebrae of the spine. These discs cushion the movement between the bones and allow the spine to bend and flex. If you have disc pain, it’s important to understand that a bulging disc is different from a herniated disc.

Each disc has a tough outer layer (“annulus fibrosus”) and a soft inner layer (“nucleus pulposus”). If a disc extends outside the space it should normally occupy, it’s called a bulging disc. In contrast, a herniated disc is when the outside annulus cracks, and the nucleus protrudes through it.

A bulging disc is at high risk for herniation. In terms of causes, symptoms and treatment, bulging discs and herniated discs follow the same pattern. They are usually considered part of the normal aging process. However, other possible causes include:

  • Injuries
  • Spinal arthritis
  • Spinal stress.

In many people, bulging discs have no symptoms and require no treatment. Bulging discs that cause pain and other symptoms do because they compress spinal nerves.

Bulging Disc Pain

Most common is a lumbar (lower back) bulging disc. Back problems occur frequently in the lumbar area, as it supports most of the body’s weight and can be easily strained and injured. Symptoms of a lumbar bulging disc include:

  • Numbness, tingling or weakness in the legs or feet
  • Pain in the lower back, buttocks and legs.

Far less common—and potentially more serious—is a cervical bulging disc. It’s important to address neck pain or other symptoms from a cervical bulging disc promptly, because the neck has so little space for the spinal cord to pass through, that the bulging can compress the spinal cord and cause serious injury. Symptoms include neck pain and numbness, tingling or weakness in the neck, chest, shoulder or one or both arms.

Bulging Disc Treatment

Most people who have symptoms associated with a bulging disc recover in a few months with conservative treatment. Possible treatments include:

  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic work, which can take pressure off the nerves
  • Exercises that strengthen the muscles that support the back
  • Ice or cold compresses to help reduce pain and inflammation
  • Medication that controls pain and inflammation
  • Physical therapy techniques, which may include exercise, heat, ice, traction, an ultrasound, electrical stimulation or massage therapy
  • Rest, followed by a gradual increase in activity
  • Spinal decompression.

Medical professionals may also administer cortisone injections if other treatments don’t work. Fewer than 10 percent of people with a bulging disc require surgery, according to the Mayo Clinic. Talk to your doctor about what treatment options are best for you.


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Hart, D., M.D. (n.d.). Conditions affecting the spine and back. Retrieved March 8, 2010, from http://www.netwellness.uc.edu/healthtopics/spinal/spineconditions.cfm

Laser Spine Institute Staff. (n.d.). Lumbar bulging disc (lower back). Retrieved March 8, 2010, from http://www.laserspineinstitute.com/back_problems/bulging_disc/lumbar/

Spine Universe Staff. (n.d.). Neck pain is nothing to shrug about. Retrieved March 8, 2010, from http://www.spineuniverse.com/conditions/neck-pain/neck-pain-nothing-shrug-about

Swanson, S., M.D. (n.d.). What’s the difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc? Retrieved March 8, 2010, from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bulging-disc/AN00272