Bulging Discs: The Importance of Getting Treatment

If you are one of the millions of people who suffer from a bulging disc in the spine, you know how crippling it can be. Bulging discs can be excruciatingly painful, and they often make it difficult to do everyday activities. Postponing your treatment is usually a bad idea, not just because it prevents you from experiencing symptom relief, but also because it puts you at greater risk of developing long-term health problems. Getting treatment now could improve your quality of life dramatically and protect your spine against future debilitation.

What is a Bulging Disc?

A bulging disc is a problem that can occur with a disc along your spine. Spinal discs, which serve as cushions between the vertebrae of the spine, are made of a gel-like interior with a tougher, fibrous outer layer. If this outer shell weakens due to injury or gradual degeneration, the inner gel-like substance can cause the disc to bulge out one side of the spinal canal. Just like a lumpy pillow or mattress, a bulging disc does not give balanced, comfortable cushioning to the spinal vertebrae and fails to provide the necessary degree of shock absorption as you move your spine.

Bulging discs can occur anywhere along the spine. A bulging cervical disc occurs in the neck portion of the spine, while a bulging lumbar disc occurs in the back portion of the spine. Symptoms usually begin in the area around the affected disc but may affect other areas as well. As examples, a bulging lumbar disc may cause lower back pain that radiates down through the buttocks into the legs, and a bulging cervical disc may cause neck pain, headaches, and pain in the upper back and shoulders.

Why Should I Get Treatment for a Bulging Disc?

Treatment for a bulging disc is important for a few reasons. The primary reason is for symptom relief, because a bulging disc can cause pain, burning, numbness, weakness, or stiffness. These symptoms may be significant and can inhibit your daily movements.

Another major reason to get treatment for a bulging disc is because of the associated risks. A bulging disc, left untreated, can become a slipped disc or a herniated disc, which carries increased risks and potentially greater consequences for your overall health.

What are the Consequences of Not Getting Treatment for a Bulging Disc?

Some people choose to live with the pain of a bulging disc, but this is a mistake. Failing to get treatment will, of course, prevent you from experiencing symptom relief. If your symptoms are not very bad, you may think that treatment is not necessary, but there is more to it than that. Because a bulging disc has a weaker exterior shell, a bulging disc is much more likely to become a herniated disc.

A herniated disc occurs when the outer layer of the disc develops a tear, and the gel-like interior of the disc leaks out. The resulting lack of cushioning can press against the nerves of the spine, causing ongoing spinal nerve compression. Consequently, failure to get treatment for a bulging disc may lead to severely worsening symptoms, including extreme pain that radiates down through the legs, difficulty bending in certain directions, inability to perform daily activities, and worst of all, spinal stenosis (lumbar stenosis or cervical stenosis). Spinal stenosis is a condition in which nerve compression continues over extended periods of time, and it can lead to permanent numbness, weakness, incontinence, balance problems, and even paralysis. (Learn more about lumbar disc herniations or cervical disc herniations.)

What are My Treatment Options for a Bulging Disc?

There are several treatment options available for bulging discs. If your symptoms are mild, conservative treatments such as physical therapy, medication, lifestyle modifications, bracing, or spinal injections may provide sufficient relief. If you have a bulging disc that is not responding to these methods, however, you may need to consider surgery.

Surgery for a bulging disc can provide significant relief and protect against future problems with the spine. There are three main surgical options for a bulging disc:

  • Disc replacement (lumbar disc replacement or cervical disc replacement): A damaged, bulging, or herniated disc can be surgically replaced with a fully mobile artificial disc. This surgery can significantly improve symptoms, and it allows the spine to continue moving as it was physiologically designed to do.
  • Spinal fusion: When warranted, a bulging or herniated disc can be surgically removed, and the vertebrae can be fused together. This can also alleviate symptoms, but permanently restricts some degree of movement in the spine. Newer surgical techniques using a tubular retractor minimize damage to the soft tissues and muscles.
  • Stenosis surgery (lumbar stenosis or cervical stenosis): Stenosis surgery both removes the bulging disc and corrects any spinal compression. This surgery can relieve symptoms and prevent long-term compression from causing permanent nerve damage.

To learn more about your treatment options for a bulging disc, schedule your consultation with our board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon Dr. Stephen Pehler. Call 303-695-6060 or complete our online contact form today.