A bulging disk occurs when the spongy disks in the spine become compressed. It can lead to a person experiencing pain and mobility issues.
Bulging disks are usually due to age-related degeneration, while symptoms tend to progress gradually.
Doctors may recommend treatment for bulging disks in the back from a range of short-term and long-term options to decompress the spinal canal and ease the pain.
This article examines the causes and symptoms of a bulging disk. We also look at potential treatments and exercises that may offer pain relief.
A bulging disk occurs when the spongy disks between the bones in the spine become compressed and bulge out.
A series of interlocking bones, called vertebrae, make up the spine. These vertebrae provide support for the spine and enable the back to bend and move.
Between each vertebra is soft tissue, known as a spinal disk, which prevents bones from rubbing against each other. The disks also act as shock absorbers to prevent damage during movement.
Each disk contains a tough outer later with gel in the middle. This gel may decrease with age, become compressed, and push out. When the disk bulges, it may make contact with a nerve and trigger pain.
Most bulging disks occur at the bottom of the lumbar spine. Sometimes, the outer layer of the disk breaks down and causes a herniated disk. A herniated disk, also known as a ruptured or slipped disk, is when the gel-like center leaks out through a tear in the disk’s exterior wall.
Bulging disks increase the likelihood of a herniated disk, which can be painful, affect mobility, and limit a person’s daily functioning and quality of life. Bulging disks can also lead to weakness or numbness in the legs and poor bladder control.
The symptoms of a bulging disk depend on its severity and location in the spine.
Some people may experience no initial symptoms. However, with further disk degeneration and herniation, a person may have the following symptoms:
- back pain that worsens with movement, such as sneezes
- spasms in the back muscles
- weakness and numbness in the legs and feet
- reduced mobility in the legs, knees, and ankles
- decreased bladder and bowel control
- difficulty walking
- reduced coordination
A herniated disk in the upper part of the spine may trigger similar symptoms. However, instead of affecting the legs, it may cause symptoms in the upper body, including numbness and weakness.
Pain may also radiate to different areas of the body, such as the arms or rib cage.
Bulging disks result from a reduction of gel in the disk center. Less gel causes the disk to become compressed and start to bulge.
The gel in a spinal disk naturally wears away over time. A bulging disk is usually the result of aging, but it can also be due to spinal injury, such as the result of a car accident. An injury could also push a bulging disk to become herniated.
Another risk factor is physical activity, which may weaken the back and abdominal muscles, placing additional pressure on the vertebrae.
Some physically demanding jobs may also increase the risk of a bulging disk , such as those that frequently involve lifting heavy objects.
Treatments for a bulging disk will depend on its severity and location.
Doctors may recommend anti-inflammatory medications to help with pain and reduce inflammation. For people with severe pain, steroid injections may be a suitable short term solution.
If the disk ruptures, bed rest may be necessary. Sometimes, if the condition is severe, a doctor may perform surgery to reduce pain and improve mobility.
Over-the-counter pain relief may relieve mild pain due to a bulging disk.
Physical therapy and exercises may help a person strengthen the muscles around the disk and improve mobility.
A doctor or physical therapist can help determine safe exercises for a person, depending on the bulging disk’s position. They may suggest gentle physical activities, such as yoga or walking.
Stretches for the back, neck, and legs might be another option that people can try at home to ease the pain. A person may also need to maintain a moderate weight to reduce pressure on the vertebrae.
Additionally, supporting the spine with protective equipment may ease a bulging disk. For example, a person could ensure their desk chair features adequate lumbar support.
Preventing a bulging disk is not always possible, as disk gel naturally degrades over time. However, people can take the following steps to prevent a bulging disk from becoming severe:
- maintaining a moderate weight to reduce pressure on the vertebrae
- keeping physically active to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine
- staying flexible and stretching when sitting for long periods
- practicing good posture to reduce stress on the spine
Practicing good posture, exercising regularly, and healthful eating can often improve back pain without speaking with a doctor.
A person should consult with a healthcare professional if they have back pain that worsens over time or accompanies other symptoms, such as bowel or bladder control issues.
People experiencing severe back pain following trauma or physical exertion may also need to speak with a doctor.
Bulging disks occur when the spongy disks between the vertebrae become compressed and bulge out. A common cause of bulging disks is aging. If this degradation continues, it can lead to a herniated disk.
Herniated disks can cause pain, numbness, and mobility issues. Treatments may include combinations of medication, physical therapy, and self-care.
In severe cases of herniated disks, a person may need surgery.