What is a Bulging Disc?

Bulging Disc animation of bulge pressing on a nerve

A bulging disc refers to when the inner nucleus of a vertebral disc protrudes to it's outer layer. A disc bulge may happen as a result of a great amount of pressure being placed on the disc, or if the disc has degenerated from age and other factors. Just because a bulge has occurred doesn't mean there will be any bulging disc symptoms; it is only when it comes in contact with surrounding tissues or nerves that it begins causing problems.

Though similar, a bulging disc in the neck or back should not be confused with a Herniated Disc. Although herniated discs do share some of the same symptoms with a bulging disc, a vertebral disc is considered herniated only once the inner material of the disc actually breaks though its outer shell.

A bulging disc is usually a clear sign that there are problems in the surrounding areas of the spine. The problems may be caused by increased pressure being placed on the spinal disc, or by the disc weakening from degeneration. A bulging disc in the back or neck can be one of the underlying causes of:

doctors note

Note From Dr. Liu:

A bulging disc in the neck will rarely require surgery. Conservative treatment and activity modification is all that is usually required. To get a specific treatment recommendation, use our Pain Evaluation.

Healthy Disc Compared to a Bulging Disc

The diagrams below show a healthy disc and a disc bulge. Most people will not notice the degenerative stage before the disc bulges as there is no actual pressure being placed on the surrounding nerves/structure.

Healthy Vertebral Disc
Figure 1a. Healthy vertebral disc.
A bulging disc pressing against the spinal nerves, causing lumbar pain
Figure 1b. A bulging disc applying pressure to a spinal nerve branch.