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Back Pain

Got a Bulging Disc? Symptoms, Causes and Treatment Options

Herniated disc

A very common cause of back pain and related symptoms is a bulging disc. Upon first hearing about it, people wonder what exactly a bulging disc is.

What is a Bulging Disc?

In between each of your spinal bones is a rubbery disc. They have three primary functions: for one, they absorb shock. When you take a fall or get jerked around, the discs lessen the impact and protect your spine from being damaged. They also act as ligaments that hold the vertebrae bones together. Lastly, they function as joints to allow flexibility in your spine, while providing cushion between the bones.

Now that you know what a spinal disc is, to the question: what is a bulging disc? This occurs when the outer layer of the intervertebral disc swells outward and loses its shape, which places pressure on the surrounding nerves and other structures. Yes, the nerves. If you’re feeling pain from a bulging disc, that’s likely because the disc is intruding on a nerve along your spine. Bulging discs usually occur in the neck or the lower back, but can sometimes occur in the middle back.

The terms bulging disc and herniated disc are sometimes used interchangeably, but there’s an important difference between the two that’s helpful to understand. When a bulging disc occurs, the disc is still completely intact; it’s just losing its shape. A herniated disc occurs when the the outer layer of the disc cracks and allows some of the softer cartilage inside to protrude. A herniated disc is more serious than a bulging disc, and more likely to cause pain. It generally protrudes further, thus affecting surrounding nerves more severely. A herniated disc is often preceded by a bulging disc, so sometimes bulging can be the first stage of the problem. Bulging discs do not always herniate though.

Bulging Disc Symptoms

Sometimes a bulging disc causes little to no pain, especially in the early stages and if it has not yet herniated. Other times though, the pain can be moderate to severe. As mentioned earlier, this is due to irritation of surrounding nerves by the bulging disc. Less severe sensations from the nerves include numbness and tingling. The effects are also not limited to the spinal area.

Common symptoms of a bulging disc in the neck include tingling, numbness, or pain in the shoulders, neck, forearms, hands, and fingers. This may seems odd, but this happens because the nerves in these areas are connected to those being impacted by the bulging disc.

A bulging disc in the lower back will tend to affect the lower part of your body, including the feet, lower spine, thighs, and hips. In severe cases, there can be difficulty walking. Severe symptoms such as this could be signs of a life-threatening condition, and require immediate medical attention. Other serious symptoms include muscle spasms and bladder issues.

Causes of a Bulging Disc

The most common cause of a bulging disc is the natural aging process. Wear and tear can cause the disc to bulge outward, evenly along the sides of the disc, making it look like a hamburger too large for its bun. This type of bulging disc is more common as we get older.

Other factors contribute to and increase the risk of bulging discs. Injury is the cause in a significant number of cases. Those who live sedentary lifestyles, such as truck drivers or those with desk jobs, are at higher risk. Sitting all the time just isn’t great for your spine. Physically demanding work, especially heavy lifting, can put strain the discs and cause issues. Weak back muscles increase the risk of a bulging disc due to lack of support. Bad posture or poor sleeping positions can also contribute. Other causes and contributions include obesity and smoking.

You can help your doctor determine the cause of your bulging disc by answering questions about factors that may be contributing. You should make an effort here and provide extensive lifestyle information so your doctor can have a better understanding of the underlying factors exclusive to your own health situation.


In addition to assessing your symptoms, x-rays, and sometimes MRI or CT scans, are necessary to accurately diagnose a bulging disc. This allows the doctor to see your discs and any abnormalities in shape.

Treatment Options

Fortunately, there are a number of treatments available for bulging discs. To relieve the pain early on, anti-inflammatory and pain medications can be prescribed, and heating pads or ice packs can also be used, depending on what helps. Rest can also be effective in reducing inflammation and promoting healing. A brace can also be used to give your spine a break. Good news, massages can really help too.

Changing your habits and addressing some of the causes of the bulging disc can also be effective in recovery. Working on good posture and changing your sleeping positions can make a significant difference.

Exercise and physical therapy should also be considered. This can strengthen muscles which will provide needed support for your spine.

Another option to reduce pain and inflammation is a cortisone shot in the effected area. Once the more conservative options have been tried and time has passed without improvement, surgery may be considered, but usually this is not necessary. Another rare case where surgery will be performed is when the disc issue is causing a life-threatening condition.

Thankfully, most of the time bulging discs can be treated using conservative methods.

New Treatment Options

In some cases, minor surgeries can be performed using more modern technologies. These procedures can be less invasive than traditional surgery. The available options here depend on the type of bulging disc and the symptoms.

Final Thoughts

If you think you may have a bulging disc, don’t wait to exams it thoroughly. Living with a bulging disc without proper care means prolonged discomfort that could be avoided. There’s also the risk of worsening conditions, including herniation of the disc. Effective treatments are available, and you’ll be glad you took the right steps sooner rather than later.

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Pain Relief Help uses the most up-to-date and reliable sources for our articles, but its content should be used as informational only. All the information provided doesn’t replace a medical consultation, which is always your best choice of action.




Diego Molina

I’m a Clinical Psychologist with a long personal history of dealing with pain: knee tendinitis, TMJ syndrome, and most recently some shoulder pain that I haven’t had the chance to name yet! A long time yoga student, recently I have been researching the mechanisms of pain relief and habits to a healthier and pain-free life.

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