Bulging Disc: What you need to know

Overview of a bulging disc

A disc bulge is probably the most talked-about injury among people. Everyone has a story, whether it's of their own experience, their friends or co-workers. I would suggest it is also the most misunderstood and poorly explained injury. There is a lack of understanding as to what a disc bulge is, what effects that has on someone's function and pain, and what can be done about it. In this article, I will attempt to dispel some of the myths surrounding a bulging disc and hopefully provide some clarity.

So before we can understand what a disc bulge is, we need a basic understanding of the anatomy.

The disc

A disc is a rubbery, fluid-filled structure that sits between the spinal vertebrae. The primary role of discs is to act as a shock absorber for the spine. This allows you to bend, twist, jump and do all sorts of activity.

In normal function, the disc is nice and thick, with plenty of space between each vertebra.

A bulging disc also referred to as a protruding disc or slipped disc is where the disc has moved slightly posteriorly (backwards), and a portion of the disc is "sticking out".

One of the key things to note here is that a bulging disc is very different from a herniated disc. These two injuries frequently get confused; however, they are very different!

Symptoms

Now that you understand what a disc bulge is, it will make more sense when I say that the symptoms can vary enormously. Some people who present with a disc bulge will have no symptoms at all! Others may have the same level of disc bulge, but with quite severe symptoms. It is almost impossible to tease out whether the pain is caused by the disc bulge itself, or other things like muscle tightness, inflammation or any additional injury.

Some common symptoms of disc-related back pain:

Causes

The causes of a disc bulge are far-reaching and quite varied. Some of the things that will increase the risk of a disc bulge include:

Sometimes there is no apparent cause of a bulging disc, and without an MRI scan to confirm it - many people may have a disc bulge and not even know it. This is very different from a herniated disc where patients will have a lot of pain and dysfunction.

Diagnosis

If you suspect a disc bulge or any back injury, it is essential to get it assessed by a qualified professional. The key to the diagnosis of a disc bulge is:

You can have an initial assessment performed by a physiotherapist who will be able to guide you on the best course of action.

Treatment

Many behavioural patterns will lead to low back pain. Poor posture is something that is talked about at length, with many suggestions on what is "perfect posture". The reality is, we aren't designed to sit for 8-10 hours, five days a week, regardless of how "ergonomic" your chair is. The key is constant movement, and changes in posture, stand for a little while, take a seat, go for a walk, do some squats in your meeting room. These are the behaviours that will make the most significant difference in the long run.

Outside of postural changes, the obvious risk factors such as general inactivity and obesity need to be addressed as well. Your physiotherapist can discuss with you steps you should take to address these problems.

What will physiotherapy do?

It is up to your physiotherapist to conduct a thorough assessment first, to ensure a correct diagnosis. Once they are confident of the diagnosis, treatment can commence. You will find that treatment will consist of a combination of:

As a patient, you must play an active role in your treatment and make the behavioural changes suggested as well as commit to regular exercises to ensure the best results.

Recovering from a disc bulge

As you now know, a disc bulge may not be the primary source of your back pain. Recovery time will vary depending on a few factors:

If your physiotherapist believes that the injury is mild and there is no underlying structural damage, then pain can be alleviated very quickly - in a matter of days, possibly weeks. In the case of a more severe injury, the recovery time might be more significant. The key to all back pain recovery is accurate diagnosis and swift treatment where possible. If you find yourself in pain, don't hesitate to contact your local physiotherapist for guidance.

Prevention

The statistics on back pain recurrence are not favourable. Usually, once someone has an injury, their likelihood of re-injury is relatively high. This is primarily down to poor management and rehabilitation of the original injury. Rehabilitation and prevention look quite similar; the keys are:

Take care of these factors, and you will definitely reduce your chances of low back pain in the first place, and certainly reduce the chances of recurrence.

FAQs

Is a disc bulge serious?

Just because you've been told you have a disc bulge, doesn't mean you should sound the alarm bells. Studies show that many people will have disc bulges and not be suffering any symptoms of back pain. If you are experiencing severe back pain, contact your local physiotherapist for advice.

Can a bulging disc heal on its own?

Yes, it can, with appropriate mobility exercises, strength and the right advice around rehabilitation, you can eliminate back pain without the need for surgery or any other interventions. The old saying motion is lotion is undoubtedly true in this scenario; activities such as walking and general movement have been shown to help reduce back pain.

What causes a bulging disc?

Several things lead to a disc bulge:

To reduce your risk of any low back pain, then looking after your health is vital. General exercise, combined with a good diet and plenty of water is the key. Occasionally, people will suffer back pain or a bulging disc for no specific apparent reason. In this case, seek treatment from a physiotherapist and start the recovery process as soon as possible.

Is walking good for a bulging disc?

In most cases, absolutely! Walking is a primal movement that we are designed to do. Too often, we spend too much time sitting at our desk with little to no activity throughout the day. Take a break, get up and go for a walk!

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