Know the Symptoms of a Bulging Disc

Woman having neck pain from a bulging disc

Pain caused by a bulging disc can make it difficult to work, sleep soundly, or participate in recreational activities. While bulging discs can happen at any age, they are most common among adults ages 40 to 50, who start to become susceptible to disc degeneration.

Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics (CNSO) is New Jersey’s most comprehensive spine center. Learn more about bulging disc symptoms and treatment options.

What Causes a Bulging Disc?

The spinal column is made up of a series of stacked bones known as the vertebrae. Between each vertebra is a spinal disc made of soft tissue. The disc has an inner, jelly-like substance (the nucleus pulposus) and a tougher outer ring (the annulus). These intervertebral discs act as shock absorbers and support the spine. Over time, however, they may begin to weaken and break down. This is a normal result of the aging process and is known as disc degeneration. The annulus can become misshapen or move out of alignment, a condition known as a bulging disc or a disc protrusion. Bulging discs can occur anywhere along the spinal column, but they are most common in the neck and lower back.

The Difference Between a Bulging Disc and a Herniated Disc

A bulging disc should not be confused with a herniated disc. Also known as a slipped or ruptured disc, a herniated disc develops when the outer layer of cartilage tears, causing the nucleus pulposus to leak out. A herniated disc can compress a nerve root, causing pain or numbness. Herniated discs also can be caused by gradual wear and tear, or they may happen from an acute event, like lifting a heavy box. If left untreated, a bulging disc eventually can develop into a herniated or slipped disc.

Signs and Symptoms of a Bulging Disc

One thing that bulging and herniated discs have in common is that they often are asymptomatic at first. However, a bulging disc or a herniated disc can lead to symptoms such as:

Symptoms can vary based on the location of the bulging disc. A bulging disc in the neck (known as the cervical spine) can cause problems in the shoulders and arms, whereas a bulging disc in the lower back (lumbar spine) can lead to radiating pain in the buttocks, legs, or feet.

Treatment Options

To diagnose a bulging disc, a provider will review a patient’s symptoms and medical history. They will conduct a physical examination that may involve moving into different positions to see what increases or decreases pain. They also may use imaging tests to visualize the spine and pinpoint the location of the disc degeneration.

Fortunately, bulging discs rarely require spine surgery. They usually can be treated and achieve complete pain relief with conservative interventions, including:

  • Rest: Activity modification and rest often is the first step for relieving pain caused by a bulging disc.
  • Hot and cold therapy: Alternating between an ice pack and a heating pad can help reduce swelling and relax muscle spasms.
  • Oral medications: A patient may be prescribed nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), muscle relaxants, or corticosteroid medication.
  • Physical therapy: A certified physical therapist can use manual release techniques, stretching, and exercises to reduce pain and improve flexibility and muscle strength.

If these do not provide significant symptom relief, a patient may be a candidate for more interventional pain management treatments such as epidural steroid injections. This is a quick, in-office procedure that uses real-time X-ray guidance to deliver a precise amount of steroid medication and anesthetic into the epidural space over the spine. Often, a patient will have a series of three or four injections that are spaced apart over a few weeks. Patients can also achieve complete pain relief with epidural steroid injections or transforaminal injections.

Find Treatment for Back Pain

Patients experiencing bulging disc symptoms can find expert care at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine, and Orthopedics (CNSO). Serving patients in northern New Jersey, CNSO has an experienced team of specialists who work collaboratively to deliver personalized care. The award-winning medical staff includes:

  • Neurosurgeons
  • Orthopedic spine surgeons
  • Interventional pain management physicians
  • Physiatrists
  • Rehabilitation specialists
  • Certified physical therapists

CNSO takes a conservative approach to pain control and pain management, recommending neck surgery or back surgery only after less invasive options have been thoroughly explored. With multiple locations throughout northern New Jersey, patients can access convenient care for a wide range of back and spine conditions. The team at CNSO also offers telemedicine appointments for those who cannot make it to the office in person. For more information about bulging disc treatment or to schedule an appointment, contact CNSO today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics