What is a Bulging Disc?

A bulging disc is when the inner nucleus of a vertebral disc protrudes to its outer layer. A disc bulge may happen as a result of a significant 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 share some of the same symptoms as a bulging disc, a vertebral disc is considered herniated only once the disc's inner material breaks through its outer shell.

A bulging disc in the back is usually a clear sign of 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:

Bulging disc symptoms

Most people who show signs of a herniated disc in the back will feel pain in the area of the bulge. Numbness, tingling, and waves of pain felt along the nerve pathway into the arms or legs are common bulging disc symptoms. You will usually only feel symptoms when performing an activity that places enough pressure for the disc to bulge and comes into contact with a nearby nerve.

Where the damaged disc is located will determine what other areas of the body are affected. Tell your doctor about your symptoms and what you are doing that aggravates your pain so they can accurately diagnose your condition. This will lead to a more effective bulging disc or herniated disc treatment.

Bulging disc in the neck symptoms include

  • Neck pain
  • Pain in the shoulder, arms, and/or hands
  • Numbness or tingling felt in the arms, hands, or fingers
  • Muscular weakness or atrophy if left untreated

Bulging disc in lower back symptoms are

  • Lower back pain
  • Pain in the buttocks, legs, and/or feet
  • Numbness or tingling in the legs, feet, or toes
  • Muscular weakness or atrophy if left untreated


The weakening of a disc from degeneration as we age is the main cause of a bulging disc. As we age, daily wear and tear weaken structures and other components of the spine.

This natural degenerative process weakens the disc, making it harder and harder to handle the pressure placed on it when performing normal daily activities. This usually results in a bulging disc in the lower and upper back, which may press on the nerves near it, causing pain and other symptoms.

Diagnosis of a bulging disc

For a physician to diagnose a bulging disc in the back, they need to look at a few different aspects of your pain. The patient’s medical history is taken into account, along with a physical examination. If deemed necessary, diagnostic tests will also be ordered. The patient's medical history will help describe when the pain started, what the patient was doing that caused it, and what the pain feels like; Is it a burning sensation? Does it radiate to the arms? Does it feel less intense in one position rather than the other?

During the physical examination, the physician will test for nerve function and muscle strength in certain areas of the arm or leg. The physical manipulation tests should give your doctor a good idea of what condition or injury may be causing the pain.

If your symptoms are severe and threaten to cause permanent damage to your spine or its surrounding structures, bulging disc surgery may be required before conservative methods are attempted.

Because the vertebral disc is comprised of tissue, an X-ray will not have favorable results. A CT scan may be ordered if access to an MRI machine is difficult, but these results are subpar compared to the results that an MRI would provide. An MRI can provide detailed views of a bulging disc and nerves that may be compressed or impinged. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, disc bulge treatment may begin.


Initial bulging disc treatment begins with rest and anti-inflammatory medication. You can purchase multiple products without a prescription from your doctor that will help with the swelling. If these products have little or no effect, your doctor may prescribe something stronger. If your pain is caused by inflammation, these drugs should help, but if it is not, acetaminophen can be taken for general pain relief.

Home care advice

Cold packs may also be applied to help with inflammation and swelling. During the initial 48 - 72 hours after your initial injury, you may begin to apply heat packs to encourage blood flow and healing.

If after a few weeks you do not improve, or your condition starts to get worse, physical therapy and activity modification are usually the next steps for bulging disc treatment.

Suppose your symptoms are severe and threaten to cause permanent damage to your spine or its surrounding structures. In that case, bulging disc surgery may be required before conservative herniated disk treatment methods are attempted.

Surgical options

Surgery for a bulging disc is rarely required and usually never attempted until 4 - 6 weeks of conservative disc bulge treatment fail to bring relief to the patient. In some rare cases, a bulging disc could cause numbness or muscle weakness that affects your walking or may cause problems with bowel or bladder function. At this point, bulging disc surgery is usually considered a priority.

Open Back Surgery - Traditionally, bulging discs are treated with an open back procedure. The surgeon makes a large incision into the skin and cuts muscle and surrounding tissue to access the problematic disc. This traditional surgical option is invasive, requires overnight hospitalization, general anesthesia, and requires a lengthy recovery coupled with strong pain medication.

Endoscopic Surgery - Fortunately, you have a second option with endoscopic spine surgery. Thanks to the advancement of surgical technology at Atlantic Spine Center, bulged disc surgery can be performed using endoscopic procedures, meaning the surgeon makes a small incision to insert special surgical tools. During an endoscopic bulging disc operation, the surgeon uses a tiny camera to visualize and gain access to your damaged disc. This minimally invasive new approach offers shorter recovery, easier rehabilitation, and a much higher success rate than open back or neck surgery. A local anesthetic is all that is usually required.

Exercises for bulging disc

Your physician can recommend you an exercise plan to help relieve pain. It is vital to perform only advised exercises with proper technique. Otherwise, you can make your state worse. Also, if the exercises make the symptoms more severe, you should stop.

Usually, an exercise plan involves gentle stretches and poses that target spinal decompression.

Bulging disc prevention

There are some tips on how to prevent a bulging disc, including

  • maintaining a healthy body weight to reduce pressure on the spine;
  • being physically active to strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine;
  • taking breaks to move and stretch when sitting for long periods;
  • maintaining proper posture.


Bulging Disc