Bulging discs are very common. It’s estimated that as many as 80 percents of people over 55 have a bulging disc or discs in some area of their spine. While bulging discs can be painless, it’s important to head off their cause before they become more serious, either herniating or pressing on nearby nerves. We have various treatments for bulging discs at DFW Center for Spinal Disorders.
Bulging Disc Vs. Herniated Disc
There is some misunderstanding about the difference between a bulging disc in the spine and a herniated disc. In a nutshell, a bulging disc is pushing out from where it should be, hence the term “bulging.” A herniated disc first bulges, and then the pressure forces its gel-like inner nucleus to rupture or push through the outer shell. The difference is containment of the inner gel of the disc. Both conditions can cause pain or can be pain-free. But, in most cases, a herniated disc has a better chance of causing pain when the leaking gel pushes on nearby nerves.
“I had surgery in March for spinal stenosis. DFW is amazing…I had suffered for years in pain. It finally reached a point that I wasn’t able to do much of anything. Now I am able to do things I haven’t been able to do in years!”
Christie P. – June 2019
What Causes a Bulging Disc?
Our goal at DFW Center for Spinal Disorders is to find the cause behind the bulging disc. This is important to address before the disc herniates. Bulging discs generally develop because of one or more of the following reasons:
- General wear and tear — The wear and tear of daily human existence, coupled with our bones becoming slightly less dense with age, can put extra strain on particular discs, allowing them to protrude outside the width of the vertebrae.
- Degenerative disc disease — As we age, in many people the discs become less structurally sound and their water content declines. These changes make the discs less likely to prevent a disc from bulging or herniating. Sedentary lifestyles and smoking can also play a part.
- Injury or trauma — A specific injury is usually associated more with a herniated disc; bulging discs tend to develop over time. But an injury can create the conditions that lead to a bulging disc.
- Bad posture — Bad posture, whether when standing, sitting, or sleeping, puts undue strain on the neck and back, leading to a bulging disc.
- Occupational hazards — Jobs that require constant lifting, bending, standing, or driving all place pressure on the spinal discs.
Where Are Bulging Discs More Common?
Although any spinal disc can bulge, 90 percent of bulging discs develop in the lumbar area of the back. This is described as the five vertebrae labeled L1 through L5. This is because this area of the spine carries the majority of the upper body’s weight. Discs in the cervical spine (the neck area) aren’t as prone to bulging.
Bulging Disc Symptoms
Muscle spasms and lower back pain are the typical symptoms of a bulging disc. The pain can radiate outward to the buttocks, thighs, and feet. If the bulging disc is putting pressure on the sciatic nerve, a condition called sciatica can result. In sciatica, pain radiates down one leg (but not usually both legs). In extreme cases, the bulging disc may impact the nerves that control bladder function.
Bulging Disc Treatment
At DFW Center for Spinal Disorders, our treatment strategies are diverse. Some patients have only mild symptoms. In these cases, we may use core strengthening exercises, postural training, anti-inflammatory medication, physical therapy, massage, even chiropractic treatment or braces. These lifestyle changes may be enough to completely eliminate the pain.
The level of treatment usually is dictated by the degree the outward pushing of the disc is affecting nearby nerves. In cases where the disc is causing nerve compression, the patient may have chronic pain and may lose feeling and function in an area of the body. In those cases, decompression surgery may be necessary to alleviate the pressure on the nerve. Prior to any surgery, we may opt for a series of epidural steroid injections to attempt to alleviate the inflammation and the pain.
How Long Does It Take to Recover from a Bulging Disc?
The incidence of lumbar disc herniation has been estimated to be greater than 50% in some populations, with the majority of these being asymptomatic. For patients who have symptomatic back or leg pain due to a bulging or herniated disc, most symptoms will resolve or decreased within a 6-week time frame.
How Will I Know If Surgery Is Necessary?
At DFW Center for Spinal Disorders, we view surgery as the last resort, opting for non-surgical treatments if possible. However, surgery can be necessary in cases where there is chronic, severe back pain, or when the patient is losing feeling or function in a body part such as the legs or feet. Surgery can also be necessary in these cases to prevent permanent nerve damage.
Surgery for a Bulging Disc
In some cases, surgery for a bulging or herniated disc can be offered for patients who have persistent back or leg pain despite having attempted conservative or non-operative management. In such situations, a microdiscectomy can be performed, which is a minimally invasive procedure that allows the surgeon to access the lumbar disc and alleviate the mechanical compression.
Recovery After Bulging Disc Surgery
Recovery from a microdiscectomy can be variable based on a patient’s age and health. Most patients can expect to leave the hospital within 24 hours following the procedure. Patients should also avoid or significantly reduce workload for 1 to 2 weeks. The patients can expect soreness from the incision to abate during this same time frame of 1 to 2 weeks. With regard to restrictions, we generally advise most patients to avoid heavy lifting, twisting, or bending for a period of 6 weeks, and to slowly resume activities of daily living as tolerated.
Schedule a Consultation
If you have questions about the treatment we offer for bulging discs, please contact our office at (817) 916-4685 to schedule a consultation. DFW Center for Spinal Disorders proudly serves Fort Worth.