A bulging disk is also know as a slipped or herniated disk, which affects the vertebrae of the spinal column. However, there is a difference. The vertebrae and the disks that cushion them help us to flex or bend, turn sideways, touch our toes and rotate. Any injury to the vertebrae or the disks that cushion them can affect movement and mobility, as well as causing back pain. Understanding the signs and symptoms of a bulging disk will initiate prompt treatment to prevent complications such as muscle weakness, chronic pain or even loss of other bodily functions such as bowel or bladder control.
A bulging disk defines the appearance of a disk that has slipped or otherwise bulged out of position. Located between the vertebra of the spine, disks provide cushioning and protect the ends of the bones against rubbing against each other. As we age, wear and tear on these disks reduces their size and ability to cushion the vertebrae of the back, which often leads to stiffness and limited range of motion. A bulging disk differs from a herniated disk in that the bulging disk remains intact and a herniated disk literally pops open, or is cracked, torn or damaged in some way that allows the gel-like substance inside the disk to protrude out.
Signs and Symptoms
One of the most prevalent symptoms of a bulging disk is back pain. Bulging disks often occur in the lower back. Mild, throbbing or sharp back pain may result from the disk pressing against nerves, or a pinching of a nerve. Many people suffer what is called sciatica, which is a condition often caused by a bulging disk pressing on nerves that initiates sharp, stabbing and traveling pain down the back to the buttocks and often down the back of the leg (or sometimes even both legs). Attempts to move, sit, change positions or lie down exacerbate the pain. Another symptom of a bulging disk is the inability to bend forward or even straighten the spine to stand in an upright position without causing severe pain. Many individuals suffering from a bulging disk also feel numbness in the arm(s) or leg(s). Weakness in the arms or legs may also be noted, depending on the location of the bulging disk.
Once in a while, we might tweak our back lifting a too-heavy object because we did not use proper body ergonomics or lifting techniques. However, individuals who lift objects every day (regardless of their weight or size) are at an increased risk for a bulging disk because of excessive wear and tear on those disks. People who are overweight or obese may experience a bulging disk because of the constant pressure placed on the vertebrae. Sudden, hard twisting movements may also cause a bulging disk, especially when lifting heavy objects, and even hard jumping (from one surface to another) may also prompt a disk to slip out of place. Elderly individuals are more prone to disk injuries because of degenerative disease processes, as well as the fact that as we age, the disks generally lose their size and ability to cushion the vertebrae.
In most cases, treatment will involve patience. Most often, a bulging disk will heal itself over time. However, treatments to relieve pain may involve warm baths or the use of a heating pad, or ice packs placed over the affected area for short periods of time (no longer than 20 to 30 minutes at at time). Nonprescription medications are often suggested for minor pain relief, but medications to reduce swelling or prompt muscle relaxation around the affected area may be prescribed.
While there is no guaranteed method to prevent a slipped, bulging or herniated disk, you can reduce your chances of suffering from one by using proper lifting techniques, which means watching your posture, using your leg muscles and keeping abdominal muscles tucked and tight while lifting. Regular exercise is also essential to promote and maintain good muscle control and tone.