A bulging disk is the first stage of what typically turns into a very serious disk problem.
Once a disk is torn it is virtually impossible for the body to heal itself without some help. Until some corrective action is taken the torn disc represents a weak link that gets picked on each time too much stress is applied to that area of the spine.
If you can diagnose a disk problem early they are very treatable by conservative methods.
Understanding the causes, symptoms, diagnosis and best treatment will allow you to prevent the problem from progressing into a more serious and much more painful herniated disk.
Over 90% of disk problems are caused by an accident before a person's 18th birthday. These are all caused by some trauma that we experience as kids. Most of us can think of things that we did as kids that we would never consider doing as adults after we have become a little wiser. Unfortunately some people pay dearly for their unwise decisions.
This picture shows an MRI of a normal disk. The arrow highlights the disk adjacent to the spinal cord showing a slight concavity. This concave portion is one of the first areas to disappear in a bulging disk.
The accidents or traumas run the gamut from falling out of trees, jumping off roofs, bike or motorcycle accidents, falling off horses and simply having a relative drop you on your head. We have heard some crazy stories from patients on what they know was the event that started everything.
They always have an intense, many times burning pain in their neck or back that will leave them unable to move for several minutes and then leaves them sore afterwards for some time. Since they are young the body is very resilient and after a few days they think they are ok.
That accident caused them to tear some of their Fibres of Sharpey which is the root system of the disk that anchors it to the vertebrae above and below it.
The disk is made of concentric rings of ligamentous material called the annulus fibrosus and in the center is the nucleus pulposus which acts as a shock absorber. As we move and bend our spines the nucleus moves around in the center of the disk and is held there by the disk walls which are firmly anchored by the root system. When some roots are torn the nucleus pushes against the weakened walls causing a bulge.
Bulging disks rarely occur in the mid back because the spine is protected by the torso. The neck supports the head which weighs 10 pounds and is frequently exposed to whiplash that taxes the muscles and ligaments beyond their limits. The low back supports the entire upper body and the strain on this area when lifting incorrectly or involved in accidents is significant.
A bulging disk can produce localized pain in the neck or low back where the injury has occurred. If the bulging disk presses on the nerve root it will disrupt the communication between the brain and its intended target. The radicular symptoms, symptoms that radiate away from the source of the problem, will typically only occur on the left or right side. Rarely will both sides be affected.
If in the neck you can have pain, tingling or numbness that radiates into the shoulders, arms or hands. You may also have muscle weakness in these same areas since the blood flow to the muscles may be reduced. This may also result in muscles that are frequently tight and spasm.
In the low back you can have pain, tingling or numbness that radiates into the buttocks, upper leg, knees, calves or even the feet. Muscle weakness is common as well which people often confuse with being clumsy. The brain tries to tell the muscles to lift the leg as you walk but if the message gets garbled people will often drag their feet or stumble.
Diagnosing a bulging disk is pretty straight forward. A doctor may do some muscle testing first but since that is not always present they will need to have an MRI performed to make sure. If you have a choice I would recommend a sitting MRI machine. A sitting MRI maintains the presence of gravity and real life circumstances. Downward force is removed when using a prone MRI which sometimes makes detecting the bulge impossible. This is the reason that the sitting MRIs were created.
It is important to point out that many people do not experience any symptoms from a bulging disk. There are even studies that have taken MRIs of random test subjects showing many of them with bulging disks but never having reported any symptoms. These people have been fortunate up to this time but the walls of the disk have been compromised and now represent a weak link in your spinal chain.
This is similar to hitting a pothole in your car and then going into a tire store to see if any damage was done. When they tell you that you now have a bulge in the sidewall of your tire you know that it is a matter of time before it gets worse and blows out; even though you can't feel the bulge when driving now.
This weak link will continue to get picked on and the nucleus will eventually push through the outer wall of the disk and turn into a herniated disc. The nucleus will now enter the nerve canal putting pressure on the nerve and the symptoms from this are very painful.
The reason bulging and herniated discs don't heal by themselves is due to gravity. The pressure on the disc never gives the body the chance to heal the torn roots. The average diet also does not have many of the specific nutrients that are needed to rebuild the torn roots.
Doctor treatment recommendations for herniated and bulging disks will range from massage and physical therapy to pain killers to spinal injections and as a last resort surgery. None of these actually heal the roots which is what the body wants. The only therapy that will allow the body to heal the torn Fibres of Sharpey is non-surgical spinal decompression.
Spinal decompression removes the force of gravity from the injured area of the neck or low back which allows the body to heal the torn roots. Spinal decompression will actually create a negative pressure within the disk which will help to draw in the nutrients the body needs to heal. While all the other therapies have abysmal success rates at helping patients with bulging disks spinal decompression has an 85-90% success rate.
If you think that you have a bulging disk you are encouraged to get an accurate diagnosis. Many chiropractors have spinal decompression clinics who can recommend an MRI center to get an accurate diagnosis of your spine. Don't procrastinate on treating a bulging disk since you are only an accident or two away from turning it into a herniated disk which is harder to treat.
These 3D animations with voice-over are to help you better understand your condition and the possible course of action to treat it.
The simple to use interface will allow you to see and hear the explainations of many conditions, inculding their treatments. The Amazing Spine area will explain the human spine and each vertebrea's affect on the internal organs and nerves.
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