What Is a Bulging Disc?

Picture of a woman walking on a track and holding her lower back in pain.

The human spine consists of numerous small bones (vertebrae) that are stacked on top of one another. In between these bones are soft discs that help to absorb shocks, hold the adjacent vertebrae together, and support spinal mobility. Each of these discs contains a tough outer layer (the annulus fibrosus) and a gelatinous core (the nucleus pulposus). When a spinal disc’s inner material pushes against its exterior shell, causing the disc to protrude or “bulge” outward into the spinal canal, it’s referred to as a “bulging disc.”

Bulging Discs vs. Herniated Discs

Although many people use the two terms interchangeably, a bulging disc is not the same thing as a herniated disc (also referred to as a “slipped disc” or “ruptured disc”). A spinal disc herniates when its outer layer develops a tear and allows its core to leak out into the surrounding space. When compared to a bulging disc, a herniated disc is more likely to cause symptoms.

Bulging Disc Causes & Risk Factors

Bulging discs usually result from normal, age-related wear and tear on the spine (as such, older people are typically more at risk for this condition). Over time, spinal discs tend to dry out, flatten, and become more prone to hardening and cracking (a condition known as “degenerative disc disease”). This can cause the discs to bulge outward. Spinal injuries (for example, those sustained in a fall or a car accident) can also lead to bulging discs.

Bulging Disc Symptoms

Bulging discs typically produce symptoms only when they press against a nearby nerve root. When this happens, it can cause:

  • Pain (this may remain localized at the site of the bulging disc or radiate into other parts of the body)
  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle cramping or spasms

Bulging disc symptoms will vary depending on where the affected disc is located within the spine. For example, if a bulging disc develops in the cervical spine (the neck area), it’s more likely to produce symptoms in the arms and hands. Conversely, if a bulging disc is located in the lumbar spine (the lower back area), there’s a greater chance of it causing symptoms in the legs and feet.

Bulging Disc Treatment

If you’re experiencing bulging disc symptoms, it’s important to promptly seek professional care, since this condition can progress and worsen if left untreated. Doctors often recommend starting with a conservative approach, which might involve taking pain medication, using hot/cold therapy, and attending physical therapy. If treatments like these don’t provide sufficient relief, surgery may become necessary (for example, a discectomy to remove a portion of the bulging disc or an artificial disc replacement).

Local Orthopedic Specialists Offering Bulging Disc Treatment

For bulging disc treatment in Durham, NC, or the surrounding area, turn to North Carolina Orthopaedic Clinic, a trusted provider that’s been serving patients since 2003. Our orthopedists treat a wide array of spine conditions—including bulging discs—and we would love the opportunity to help you relieve your symptoms. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.