Our spine is so important because it supports our weight and holds us upright as we walk, run, sit, and even lay down. Even more important, our spine protects our nerves. When our spine is damaged, the pain can be excruciating as our nerves can be injured as well. A leading cause of back injury is a bulging disc. If you find yourself experiencing the pain of a bulging disc in the back this blog post may help you to understand what is happening more clearly as well as what you can do to heal it.
WHAT IS A BULGING DISC?
Your spine is a series of hard bones, called vertebrae. The vertebrae run in a row from your head down to your tail bone. Discs, made of flexible, springy material, are located between each of the vertebrae. Think of a marshmallow between two graham crackers. The disc (marshmallow) acts as shock absorber for the spinal column. Discs are what absorb the load of the body’s movements and protect your spine from sudden jolts and jerks.
Because discs are a malleable substance, damage or deterioration can cause them to lose their shape and sag, bunch, or, “bulge.” Think about what happens to that marshmallow when you repeatedly press the two graham crackers against it. It squishes together and starts to bulge out the sides, which is what your discs do under stress as well.
IS A BULGING DISC SERIOUS?
It is easy to confuse a bulging disc with a herniated or ruptured disc. A herniated disc can be quite dangerous, but the more common bulging disc is less so. Probably the biggest concern over a bulging disc is the risk that it ruptures and becomes herniated.
Let’s go back to the graham crackers and marshmallows again. When the two graham crackers push against the marshmallow, the marshmallow becomes weaker and changes shape or bulges. Although you may experience some pain, a bulging disc is not a big concern unless the marshmallow tears and the insides of it ooze out. That is what happens to the disc when it herniates – the pressure becomes so severe that the outer layer of the disc tears and its gel-like filling leaks into the spinal canal.
If your doctor diagnoses a bulging disc, it is important to do what you can to treat and repair the problem before it worsens and ruptures. Quite often, a ruptured or herniated disc cannot be fixed without complicated surgery and an extended recovery period.
WHAT CAUSES A BULGING DISC?
Several things can cause a disc to bulge.
Degenerative Disease – Simple aging is by far the most common reason for a bulging disc to occur. Discs are made up of water and protein. As your body ages, the discs lose moisture, causing them to become weaker and less efficient as a natural shock absorber. This process can occur as early as your twenties, but is more common in your late thirties or forties.
Accident – an accident, such as a car accident or a slip and fall can cause strain to one or more of the discs in your spinal column, which may weaken the disc and cause it to bulge.
Smoking – smoking tobacco affects the strength of the skeletal structure and speeds up degenerative changes in the discs, often resulting in a bulging disc.
Arthritis – Osteoarthritis (Arthritis of the spine) quite often accompanies degenerative disc disease, because the inflammation, pain and swelling of joints near the vertebrae contribute to the weakening of the discs. (See Arthritis in Lower Back: Symptoms, Causes and Treatments)
Overweight – carrying too much weight on your body can cause bulging discs as the additional weight puts more stress on the spine and the discs.
Activity Related Disc Trauma – any number of daily activities can exacerbate the weakening of your spinal discs, such as working in an occupation that requires a lot of back use, driving long distances, intense sports and even poor posture which causes muscle imbalance, and strain on the spine.
TYPES OF BULGING DISCS
Your spinal cord runs from your head all the way down your body to your pelvis. Your spine is separated into three distinct sections, each section consisting of different vertebrae and discs.
Cervical Bulging Discs
The vertebrae and circular discs composing your neck are the cervical areas of the spine. There are seven vertebrae in the cervical area, commonly referred to as C1-C7.
The discs cushioning the seven neck bones are a critical reason you can bend and twist your neck so quickly. A Cervical Bulging Disc is the result of the weakening and damage to a disc protecting one of the neck bones.
If you have a bulging disc in your neck you may experience the following symptoms:
- Pain when you try to move your neck
- Deep pain in or around your shoulder blade
- Radiating pain down your arm and into your fingers
Thoracic Bulging Discs
The vertebrae and discs making up the mid-back of the spinal canal are the thoracic areas of the spine. There are twelve vertebrae in the thoracic area, commonly referred to as T1-T12. A spinal disc between thoracic vertebrae can develop into a bulging disc in your upper back, but it occurs much less frequently than a cervical disc bulge or a lumbar disc bulge.
If you have a bulging disc in your thoracic area you may experience the following symptoms:
- Numbness, muscle weakness, or tingling in the mid-back and shoulder area, as well as one or both legs
- Upper back pain
- Radiating pain or numbness
Lumbar Bulging Discs
Lumbar bulging discs account for the largest majority of all bulging disc cases. As you might deduce, lumbar bulging discs occur in the lumbar area of the spine, made up of five vertebrae and discs (L1-L5) that span from the waist to the top of your hips.
The L4-L5, the two lowest vertebrae in the lumbar spine, provide a variety of functions, including supporting the upper body and allowing motion in multiple directions. Because of the heavy load it carries, and the need for a broad range of flexibility in the L4-L5 area, the discs related to this segment of the spine are apt to bulge and even herniate.
In fact, the most common place for a disc to herniate is at the L4 L5 area, and so it is important to identify damage to the lumbar discs quickly to avoid it to become more severe than a bulging disc in the lower back.
- Dull, sharp or burning and radiate to the buttocks, legs, and feet.
- Weakness, numbness, and tingling in the legs
- Muscle spasms.
- Any of the above symptoms worsening when you cough, sneeze or bend
HOW TO FIX A BULGING DISC
There are some treatments for bulging discs, many of which can be done naturally at home. Start with the most conservative remedies, with the goal to repair the bulging disc without surgery.
At Home Treatments:
- Temporarily ease back on intense activities. Sometimes all you need is some R&R to reduce the stress on your discs.
- Find a comfortable resting position that causes you the least neck pain. For example, put a pillow under your neck to help stabilize it.
- Apply cold or heat – whichever makes your pain feel better – for 20-minute intervals.
- Do simple stretching exercises such as gently turning your head left to right, front and back. Be careful to take it slow and don’t overstrain your neck.
- Use exercise to build up your shoulders, upper back, and core muscles to help support your spine and neck better.
Physical therapy: If at-home treatments are not helping, you may want to seek help from a physical therapist or chiropractor. These professionals can use massage, ultrasound, physical therapy and exercise to stretch and strengthen your neck muscles to help support your vertebrae and discs.
Medication: If your pain is too intense to rehabilitate your bulging disc naturally, your doctor can prescribe medication to help alleviate some of the pain. Over the counter acetaminophen or ibuprofen are usually the first line of defense to reduce the discomfort, but if the pain is acute he may prescribe narcotic painkillers or steroids for a short time.
Surgery: Most people with bulging discs will heal satisfactorily using one or a combination of the above three treatments. However, if such treatments fail, the symptoms worsen or the disc herniates or ruptures, surgery may be required. If you do need surgery, be sure to consult with your doctor as to the best surgical treatment for your situation. If the disc has not yet ruptured, you may be able to take advantage of laser surgery which can lessen the trauma to the spine and substantially shorten recovery time.
Finally, a sore neck, shoulders or back should never be ignored. If you are experiencing pain that might be caused by a bulging disc, consult with your doctor to confirm it is not a more serious herniated or ruptured disc.