What is a bulging disc? It’s a common question among people who have back and/or leg pain, who might also be wondering if this particular condition is the source of their pain. In this article we’ll explain what it means to have a bulging disc, and, briefly, discuss your options should it happen to you.
What is a bulging disc?
Between each of the pairs of vertebrae in your spine you have what are called spinal discs. The discs are complex structures that connect the vertebral bodies, absorb impacts, and distribute mechanical forces. The discs also allow for mobility in the spine, and create space between the vertebrae for nerves. Discs change throughout the day, losing water and height, then regaining it at night while you sleep. (You may notice that the rearview mirror of your car is adjusted differently on the ride to and from work, because you lost a small amount of disc height during the work day.)
Every disc is composed of two parts: The outer part of the disc is called the annulus. It has a tough exterior made of annular fibers that interlink or interweave at roughly 45 degrees (like a radial tire) that help control rotation and bending of the spine. The middle part of the disc, called the nucleus, is made up of a soft, jelly-like filling—mainly composed of water—that helps withstand the axial forces of the spine.
When the nucleus is compressed it creates a hoop stress, exerting circular forces around the annulus. If the forces are strong enough, the annulus will break. Think of it like pressing on a water balloon: When you push, the outer material tenses up and will break if you push hard enough. If the outer layer of a disc weakens, sometimes the nucleus of the disc pushes out past the normal outer shape of the disc—this is known as a bulging disc.
Note that in a bulging disc, all the disc material is still contained within the annulus but is pushing out or bulging against the outer rim. A disc herniation, on the other hand, is an advanced stage of bulging, where the nucleus breaks through the bulge and sometimes becomes a free-floating fragment.
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What causes a bulging disc?
Sometimes the breakage of the annulus occurs as part of the natural degeneration caused by aging. Like your skin and your hair, your discs are also made of collagen, which means that naturally, over time, they dry out and crack.
Although natural degeneration is normally the cause of disc problems, it can also happen suddenly as the result of traumatic mechanical pressures—like bending or lifting improperly. Bending forward and lifting something heavy at the same time puts increased pressure on the spine, which could cause a disc to rupture.
A bulging disc is a fairly common condition—one that’s not always painful. Many people have bulging discs without even realizing it. One study showed that more than half of participants (52 percent) had one or more bulging discs but showed no sign of back or leg pain. That’s because the affected disc only becomes a problem when it protrudes enough to push against a nerve or the spinal cord. Often, it may touch somewhere along the sciatic chain of nerves that goes to your buttocks, legs, and feet, which often results in sciatica—a type of pain running down one or both legs from the lower back.
What To Do About A Bulging Disc
Most spine surgeons think of bulging discs as benign, and they will not treat them at all if there is no pain. Even with painful symptoms, waiting is a good first response, as a large percentage of bulging disc cases resolve themselves within approximately six weeks. If the pain is tolerable, you may simply need to wait and see if the condition heals on its own.
If you are experiencing some pain during that waiting period, it’s a good idea to try one or more natural remedies. These include:
- Medication such as anti-inflammatories, which help reduce irritation and pressures, or muscle relaxers, which ease muscle spasms.
- Chiropractic care or physical therapy, which can help strengthen your core muscles and promote overall spinal health.
- Yoga, which makes your spine more resilient, and in some cases can coax a disc back into position
- Acupuncture, which has been shown to be beneficial for many patients, although the mechanism of action is not well understood
If the pain continues to get worse after six weeks, it’s time to discuss your options for treatment with your doctor.
If you have more questions about bulging and herniated discs, take a look at our Knowledge Center for additional information.