What is a bulging disc?

Disc bulges are commonly found with in the cervical (neck) spine and the lumbar (low back) spine.

What does a disc do?

The intervertebral disc is the spongy cushion that is located between two vertebral bones in our spine – there are 23 discs in the human spine. Its main role is to act as a shock absorber for the daily forces being placed on our spine. The disc also provides the spine with mobility, flexibility and stabilization.

The disc has high water content when we are young, however as we age the water content decreases which leads to a more rigid and inflexible disc – this can lead to disc degeneration (arthritis).

The disc has two parts:

  1. The OUTER LAYER is an elastic like tissue called annulus fibrosis
  2. The INNER LAYER is gel like substance called the nucleus pulposus.

What is a Bulging Disc?

A bulging disc is a condition that can be symptomatic (painful) or asymptomatic (not painful).  It occurs when there is a weakening of the outer layer (annulus fibrosis) which allows the nucleus pulposus to move from its normal central position within the disc.

The difference between a disc bulge and a herniated disc is that with a disc bulge the annulus are still intact, therefore the nucleus will not penetrate through the annulus fibres, while if the annulus is torn or damaged the nucleus escapes from the disc, this is called a herniated disc.

What causes disc bulges?

  • Degenerative Disc Disease

As stated previously, discs become more rigid and inflexible as we get older due to the reduced water content and it is these changes that may increase the risk to disc bulges.  Poor spinal function resulting in poor posture may accelerate the degenerative process.

  • Repetitive trauma

Many years of physical work, repetitive / prolonged activities (standing, driving) or a poor ergonomic working environment may give rise to disc degeneration and therefore results in a bulging disc. Other lifestyle style factors such as a poor diet, inactivity and poor muscle tone can contribute to back injuries.

  • Injury or Trauma

An increased load applied to the disc such as lifting a heavy object, a fall or a car accident can give rise to disc bulge as the annulus may be under increased pressure therefore weakening or a tearing the outer layer wall.

  • Bad Posture

Poor posture while sitting, standing or sleeping may put unnecessary stress on our spine, leading to a bulging disc.  Good spinal hygiene involves keeping your body & spine aligned and therefore causing minimal stress to our body.  Using pillows or lumbar rolls when sitting and sleeping will help reduce the amount of pressure on the spine.

What are the symptoms of a bulging disc?

The symptoms of a bulging disc may vary depending on the location of the spine where the nerve is irritated. People often describe the pain in the affected area as sharp and movement is limited due to the body guarding itself (muscle spasm) from further injury. 

Individuals who are suffering a disc bulge in the lumbar (low back) spine may experience pain into the lower extremities including buttock, hip, knee, calf and/or foot pain.  This pain is often referred as sciatica.

If a disc bulge is within the cervical spine (neck) the person may experience referred pain in the shoulder, elbow, forearm and/or hand.  We call this pain radiculopathy.

Mid back disc bulges are least common. Referred pain may be noticed in the rib cage, chest or abdomen.

Other disc bulge symptoms that you may find:

  • Tingling
  • Numbness
  • Weakness
  • Muscular spasm

How is a disc bulge diagnosed?

Diagnosis of the disc bulge includes:

  • A thorough history.  Detailing the mechanism and duration of the injury.
  • An assessment to locate the specific site of injury. Neurological and orthopaedic examination, range of motion, muscle testing and palpation will be required.
  • Xrays, CT and MRI scans.

*Many people that are asymptomatic (no pain) can still have disc bulges.  This means that some disc bulge found on a MRI may not be the cause of symptom.

Recovery time

The recovery time for a disc injury can vary due to a number of factors such as:

  • severity of the injury
  • Patient’s age
  • How long the disc has been injured
  • The patients work commitments
  • Patient compliance

In most cases a disc bulge will respond well with Chiropractic adjustments, home advice and rest.  We encourage an exercise regime once the inflammation has settled to minimize risk of future injury.

Like all injuries our first goal to improve the patient’s pain and mobility.  On average disc injuries may take a few weeks to provide symptomatic relief, however it may take a couple of months to strengthen and stabilize the disc and vertebral joints.

Due to the nature of a disc injury, it is unlikely that the affected disc would return back to its original health and there will unfortunately always be some vulnerability.  However with the correct management plan you could live and maintain a full and active lifestyle.

Treatment for a disc injury

Sims & Finn Chiropractic will provide you with a management plan to ensure you recover as soon as possible. 

There are a variety of techniques that we offer aid your recovery:

  • Specific Chiropractic adjustments to improve spinal mobility.
  • Ice therapy
  • Stretching regime to maintain movement
  • Core strengthening once the symptoms may reduced
  • Home / Work advice to maintain good posture and minimize aggravation to injury.

*massage therapy, swimming / hydrotherapy , pilates and yoga may compliment our care.  We have a number of other health care professionals to assist you along your recovery.

*Non steroidal anti inflammatory drugs can also be used to help reduce initial symptoms.

What not to do with a disc injury?

  • Sitting or standing for long than 10 minutes
  • Apply heat to the disc injury.
  • Sitting in a soft couch or recliner will apply more pressure to the disc.
  • House or garden work
  • All leisure activities / sports/ gym workouts
  • Bed rest is not advised. Movement is the key – stay mobile.

What to do next?

Call us today to make an appointment time. 

We will provide you with:

  • A thorough Chiropractic assessment
  • Locate the cause of the disc injury
  • Specific Chiropractic adjustments to allow your nervous system to function at its best.