If you’ve suffered from back pain you know how uncomfortable it is. Sitting, standing, walking, even sleeping or lying down can all seem to aggravate your back. While there are plenty of circumstances and ailments that can lead to back pain, one of the most common causes is a bulging disc – not to be confused with herniated discs, a term many people use interchangeably with “bulging discs,” though these aren’t the same condition. Most of my patients with back pain have a fear of back surgery – and this is understandable. Back surgery is typically a last-resort option. The good news is that bulging discs often can be managed without any surgery.
Spinal Discs Act as Shock Absorbers
The intricate design of your back is truly fascinating. It’s made to twist and turn and stretch and reach, and is also designed to absorb energy when you move. Like a really good running shoe, your back contains what amounts to shock absorbers in the form of discs. Your discs are located between the vertebrae in your spine and help you move, as well as prevent damage to your spinal tissue and bone. There’s also fluid material located within these discs. If one of these discs moves into a position it isn’t supposed to be in, this fluid can swell, which pushes the whole disc out of position. This is what we refer to as a bulging disc. Aside from the back pain, there are other symptoms to be aware of if you think you might have a bulging disc. These symptoms can vary, depending on where in your spine the disc is located:
- Pain, numbness, or tingling in the lower spine, feet, thighs, toes, or buttocks
- Trouble walking
- Difficulty holding your bladder
- Pain that radiates from the upper back to the stomach or chest
- Muscle spasms
- Neck pain
- Pain in the shoulder, arms, or hands
- Numbness or tingling in the arms, hands or fingers
- Weakness of the muscles
Can it Cause Other Problems?
Apart from making it difficult to get around comfortably throughout your day, bulging discs can create other problems for you – largely stemming from all those painful symptoms I listed in that last section. Not only that: an untreated bulging disc can cause permanent nerve damage.
But I Don’t Want Surgery!
Thankfully, if you get help early enough, there’s a good chance your bulging disc can be managed and improved without surgery. The first step most doctors will take is to send you for an MRI, X-ray or CT scan to verify the diagnosis, then they’ll talk to you about what caused the injury. It might have been a sudden movement, lifting something too heavy, or simply aging. Oftentimes, bulging discs occur in people who are overweight or live sedentary lifestyles, which puts more pressure on all of your bones and joints. In most cases, the pain of a bulging disc can be alleviated with lifestyle changes (such as losing weight and strengthening your core) and physical therapy. Remember, if left untreated, a bulging disc can cause permanent damage, so don’t wait to talk to your doctor before it gets too difficult to treat without invasive measures.
Dr. Kim is a board-certified Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation specialist at Kelsey-Seybold’s Berthelsen Main Campus, Pasadena Clinic, and Summer Creek Clinic. His clinical interests include spine and musculoskeletal medicine. Dr. Kim offers various forms of conservative and noninvasive treatment options to help his patients achieve independence in managing their illnesses.