The human body can withstand significant physical damage without falling apart but has limits. We are built from a complex skeletal system that supports the rest of our bodies and allows us to remain ambulatory. While every part of our skeletal structure plays a role in maintaining the stability of our body, some are more important than others.
One of the most crucial bones is the vertebral column, more commonly known as the spine. The spine bears the bulk of the weight we put on our bodies and hosts critical nerves that allow other parts of the body to communicate with each other. Despite the importance of the human spine, it is not immune to damage and can suffer some of the most devastating injuries.
One of the most pressing spinal injuries is a bulged disc. When the spine is compromised or damaged, it becomes almost impossible for us to function as we could before. Bulged discs can further compromise the integrity of our bodies by introducing nerve damage to more common symptoms of vertebral damage.
While the idea of bulging discs is likely a fear-inducing prospect, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the condition. One detail that might elude you is whether a bulged disc is permanent or if treatment can reverse them. Understanding the permanence of bulging discs can help you prepare for how the condition will affect your life.
What is a Bulging Disc?
Knowing what the condition entails is the first step to determining how a bulging disc will affect your life. The issue with bulging discs is that many associate the condition with a herniated disc and use the terms interchangeably. However, herniated and bulging discs are very different ailments with different symptoms and long-term effects. Ultimately, both conditions affect the same part of the spine and cause issues with the discs located along the vertebral column. If you are not overly familiar with spinal discs, try to imagine them as shock-absorbing pads positioned between the vertebrae.
The human spine has 23 discs, each positioned between two vertebrae like a spinal sandwich. The purpose of these discs is to absorb the shock from impacts to the spine and minimize the damage to the bone. Each disc is composed of 2 components that give the disc its absorbency:
- Annulus Fibrosus: This is the outer portion of the spinal disc and is the most resilient part. The annulus fibrosus is a series of concentric sheets of collagen fibers that protect the inner part of the disc.
- Nucleus Pulposus: This is the inner portion of the spinal disc and is less resilient but is what absorbs the impacts and gives the discs their power. The nucleus pulposus is a loose collection of fibers suspended in a mucoprotein gel.
In this sense, the spinal disc can be likened to a jelly-filled donut with a thick, resistant outer layer that protects the gelatinous core. That said, the discs are not immune to damage despite being a protective layer for your spinal bones. Spinal discs can absorb so much trauma that they are no longer in their original position.
The difference between a herniated disc and a bulging disc begins here. A herniated disc occurs when the spinal disc is pushed out of its original position between the vertebrae, allowing the bony parts to grind against each other.
A bulging disc is a situation where the spinal disc stiffens and starts to extend past the borders of the vertebrae without moving. Ordinarily, a spinal disc fits perfectly between the vertebrae, but a spinal disc that has bulged out stiffens and extends past the vertebrae. The disc remains centered in its original position, with only the annulus fibrosus extending beyond the original circumference.
The typical symptoms of a bulged spinal disc include:
- A tingling sensation in the neck, shoulders, arms, hands, or fingers. This tingling sensation can sometimes evolve into pain.
- Pain in the lower spine, thighs, or feet.
- Difficulty walking.
- Pain while sitting.
While these symptoms are common for those suffering from bulging discs, they are often shared with herniated discs. This makes diagnosing the issue through symptoms alone an unrealistic prospect. The only effective way to diagnose a bulged disc is through a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) test. Since spinal discs are made of tissue, an x-ray will not detect them, so an MRI is the best way to determine whether you have a bulged disc or a herniated disc. The next question that needs to be answered is how bulged discs occur.
What Causes a Bulged Disc?
Bulging discs, much like any spinal damage, can be caused by several factors. Seeing as they are caused when the disc stiffens, likely due to drying out, there are a few causes of a bugled disc that might not be obvious to most people. That said, the damage to spinal discs is most commonly the result of physical trauma to the spine. This is why the most common sight of a bulged disc is between the 4th and 5th vertebrae in the lower back. These vertebrae bear the most pressure when supporting our weight and physical activity. This means everyday activities and actions can cause the discs to wear out and distort.
Constant twisting of the torso from turning, bending, or lifting can put a great deal of strain on the 4th and 5th vertebrae. The more frequently one engages in these actions, the more likely the spinal discs will be damaged. Unfortunately, more severe causes of a bulged spinal disc are worthy of consideration. Namely, degenerative disc disease is one of the leading causes of bulged discs in humans and can be caused by frequent participation in athletic activities or simple injury.
Degenerative disc disease is an extremely serious health condition in which the spinal discs cause severe pain due to damage. The discs themselves are incapable of self-repair since the blood supply allocated to the spinal discs is minimal at best. Because the discs have become so damaged with no means of repair, they begin deteriorating and deforming, leading to bulged discs, among other symptoms.
While most causes of a bulged disc involve traumatic injury, other everyday activities can adversely affect spine health. Smoking, poor posture, and inactivity have also been linked to increased rates of bulging discs. Poor posture prevents the spine from remaining in its ideal position, but smoking allows carbon monoxide to enter the bloodstream. Once absorbed by the tissue in the body, carbon monoxide prevents essential nutrients from reaching their destination and weakens certain body parts. One of the nutrients inhibited by carbon monoxide is calcium.
Without calcium, our bones weaken, and the support structure in place for them, including vertebral discs, are compromised. As shocking as it might sound, smoking can cause the discs to deform and bulge, making using cigarettes and other inhalants a potential risk factor. Bulged discs are a more common occurrence than most people realize, and the fact that such simple actions can cause them does not help to diminish that statistic. With bulged discs being so common, it is reasonable that you are curious whether they are permanent or if treatment can undo them.
Are Bulged Discs Permanent?
Bulged discs, as unpleasant as they are, are not a permanent ailment. They have been known to revert to normal independently with enough time. That said, the rate at which bulged discs recover or whether they can recover without intervention depends on the severity and duration of the bulged disc. Some bulged discs are less severe and have a higher chance of self-correcting with time, but others are more serious and require treatment to correct. Fortunately, a bulged disc is rarely permanent though it might become a chronic issue depending on the underlying cause.
Treating a bulged disc is not always a straightforward affair, as the treatments available for the condition will vary with the patient’s age and the severity and nature of their symptoms. If a bulged disc does require treatment, the end goal is to alleviate the symptoms and restore the patient’s ability to return to their normal routine. While the treatment avenues vary, there is no shortage of potential treatments for a bulged disc. Most treatments for bulged discs are non-invasive, but extreme cases can require surgical intervention.
Sometimes, treating a bulged disc is as simple as having a brace fastened to the patient. The pressure from the brace compresses the disc and minimizes the pain caused by the bulged disc. Other times, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are prescribed to accomplish the same pain relief. These are among the first-line tools issued by doctors to treat cases of bulged discs that are causing significant pain or discomfort in patients. Specialists can find a more effective solution for patients with more severe pain.
While multiple treatments are available for bulging discs, one of the most commonly employed is physical therapy. Through physical therapy, it is possible to be placed on an exercise regimen that focuses on taking pressure off the nerves the disc is pressing. This is usually accomplished through a series of exercises designed to reposition the vertebrae and keep the disc from constantly pressing down on the nerves of the spinal column. Physical therapy is commonly employed as a rehabilitative treatment for victims of sports injuries and can be effective in treating the symptoms of a bulged disc.
Additionally, a physical therapist might refer you to a chiropractic care facility for additional treatment. While a chiropractic care facility usually employs massage or temperature therapy, they have alternatives for more severe cases. The two “heavy hitter” treatments are spinal decompression therapy and electrical stimulation therapy. These treatments involve specific tools applied to the problem areas and using a mild electrical current or pressure respectively to alleviate the symptoms of your bulged disc.
In extreme cases, it might be necessary for the discs to be corrected surgically, but the odds of this outcome are low. If surgery is necessary, it is in your best interest to adhere to your provider’s advice. If a bulging disc is severe enough to warrant advanced treatment, it could lead to serious health issues if it goes untreated. Regardless of the treatment needed, the real challenge lies in finding a provider capable of administering the treatments for a bulging disc.
Take Your Health to the Next Level!
Bulging discs can either be a minor issue or a sign of a more significant health issue, depending on the circumstances surrounding yours. Mostly, a bulging disc will not present a major health issue and can be treated with little care from a chiropractic clinic or physical therapy provider. The odds of a bulged disc being severe enough to warrant invasive treatment are extremely low.
However, if you are suffering from a bulged disc that is causing constant pain, you can rest easy knowing that the effects are temporary and that the bulged disc is not permanent. If the pain lasts for a long time, you should seek treatment to alleviate the symptoms and potentially accelerate the recovery process. Understanding what treatments are effective is only the first step in this journey. The real adventure will be finding a provider who can offer your needed treatment.
Fortunately, we at Ortho Integrative are here to help. We offer many rehabilitative treatments designed to minimize pain and restore your body. Bulging discs are only one of the many issues we are equipped to handle, thanks to the expertise of our staff. We also offer spinal decompression and electrical stimulation therapy for the more severe cases.
We realize that any chronic or severe pain in your spine is likely disorienting and a little disturbing, but with our facility, you can get the treatment you need from fully trained physicians. So, if you are suffering from a bulging disc or any other vertebral condition, be sure to visit our website today and see if any of our treatment options seem right for you. Let us take your health to the Next Level!