Bulging Disc - What You Need to Know
Is a bulging disc causing your back or neck pain?
If you’ve been told this, relax, you are not alone in Townsville or indeed all of Australia. Up to 80% of Australians experience back and neck pain and 10% of the population have significant limitations because of their spinal pain.
Before we look at a bulging disc lets understand what a disc does.
What does a spinal disc actually do?
Spinal discs are the shock absorbers of your spine. They also allow movement of the spine and provide the space through which the spinal nerves leave the spine.
The disc is made up of two parts
- The outer annulus fibrosis is made up of rings of densely packed fibrocartilage (like the layers of an onion)
- The inner nucleus polyposis is a jelly-like glycoprotein (similar to the soft centre of a chocolate)
The structure of the disc allows the nucleus to move within the annulus as your spine moves.
What is a bulging disc?
A bulging disc is actually a very common condition in our spine, especially as we age. They occur when there is damage or weakening to the structure of the annulus. This damage allows the nucleus pulposus to move beyond its normal position inside the disc.
With a bulging disc the outer layers of the annulus are still intact and the nucleus is still contained within the disc. When the outer layers of the disc are damaged and the nucleus escapes from within the disc it is called a herniated disc.
Learn more about disc injuries:
CHIROPRACTIC CARE AND DISC INJURIES
What actually causes bulging discs?
There are 3 main causes of a bulging disc:
- Repetitive trauma such as poor posture, poor ergonomics or repetitive heavy work can lead to disc degeneration and a bulging disc. These long term injuries are often also associated with poor muscle strength, obesity and other factors such as smoking.
- An Injury caused by sudden forces or load on the disc such as a car accident or an awkward heavy lift. This sudden increase in pressure on the disc can cause damage and tears to the annulus.
- Spinal Degeneration. While some degeneration is a normal part of the aging process, poor spinal function and posture will dramatically speed up disc degeneration.
What are the symptoms of a bulging disc?
There are no specific symptoms that prove that you have a bulging disc. Indeed many other conditions such as a herniated discs or facet joint strain may present with identical symptoms.
The most common symptoms associated with a bulging disc are initially a sharp pain in the region of the disc especially on movement. There is also commonly a broad aching across the region, often accompanied with muscular tightness.
Symptoms such as sciatic pain, pins and needles, numbness or weakness are not common with a bulging disc however they can occur. These symptoms are typically associated with nerve compression or injury, which can occur if a bulging disc is severe, but is more commonly caused by herniated discs or spinal stenosis.
Learn more about sciatica:
How is a bulging disc diagnosed?
With a disc injury the diagnosis is fairly simple and is based on a combination of:
- the history of your injury and your specific symptoms
- your physical examination findings
- X-rays, MRI and CT scans
It is important to note that many patients with no pain at all have bulging discs on MRI so just because there is a bulging disc present does not prove that it is the cause of your pain.
How long does a disc injury take to heal?
Most bulging disc injuries respond excellently to a combination of specific treatments that address spinal functional problems and spinal exercises.
When the disc has recently been strained or torn the initial aim is to get you out of pain and moving again as quick as possible. These injuries will usually take a few weeks for the symptoms to completely settle down.
The normal healing time for tears in the annulus is about six weeks, however in some cases it can be longer. It’s important to remember that while the torn fibres are healing the disc remains weak and vulnerable to re-injury. Unfortunately the disc will never heal to its original strength and there will always be some degree of disc weakness after a disc is damaged.
How do you treat a bulging disc?
Clinically we have found over many years that the best treatment for a bulging disc is a combination of the following:
- specific low force techniques which improve spinal function
- active rest (keep moving while avoiding aggravating activities)
- ice therapy
- non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen when needed
Your chiropractor or other health care professional will advise you of any long term changes you may need to make to stay healthy such as postural changes or workplace changes. There are also many different exercise approaches that can help you stay healthy such as pilates, yoga, swimming, hydrotherapy or a gym program that you may be advised to do.
THINGS TO AVOID WITH A BULGING DISC
- heat (and heat rubs) in the first 48-72 hours of injury
- total bed rest (this has been shown to prolong the recovery)
- sitting in soft chairs that put pressure on the low back
- any period of long standing or sitting
- slouching or poor posture
So I have a bulging disc, what do I do now?
- get a thorough examination of your spine immediately
- find the actual cause of your pain
- start your specific treatment program and exercises as soon as possible
If you think you may have a bulging disc contact our office today to find out how we can help you.
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