The Disc Bulge
Last updated on March 15, 2023
To understand the disc bulge, it is first important to understand the structure and function of a disc. In between every vertebra in the spine (except the first two) there sits a disc that is made up of a fibrous outer layer (annulus fibrosus) and a softer inner layer (nucleus pulposus). The function of a disc is to provide cushioning for the spine, essentially acting like a shock absorber, transmitting load through the vertebral column. They also allow movement between adjacent vertebral bodies due to their sponge-like structure. Lastly, they create a gap that allows spinal nerves to pass through the intervertebral foramen (the gap at the back of the spine which nerves pass through).
While it may seem like a disc bulge just occurs after one instance (e.g. bending over to move a pot plant), it is often the result of consistent repetitive movements in a poor position – such as continuously bending over to pick up items off the floor, or even long hours seated or standing. While physical stressors can contribute to disc bulges, so can chemical stressors – what we put in our bodies. For instance, smoking reduces the ability of your discs to receive adequate nutrition and therefore limits their ability to heal and stay healthy. Furthermore, discs require adequate fluid to ensure they stay plump and normal, so dehydration can also play a large role in disc health.
Disc bulges can cause several symptoms, including:
- Neck/ back pain
- Arm/ leg pain
- Pins and needles in the arm/leg
- Burning pain
And in severe cases can cause:
- Arm/leg weakness
- Changes in bowel or bladder function
Most disc bulges can be resolved with conservative treatment – that is, without the use of surgery, medications, or injections. A physical examination assessing history and function is carried out by a qualified professional chiropractor. From there a specified treatment plan is recommended, which often includes manual therapy and a series of tailored rehabilitation exercises, as well as assessing posture and movements that may be contributing to the problem.
However, it is important to understand that pain is a poor indicator of function within the spine. Pain is often the last thing to occur when there are biomechanical dysfunctions within the spine and the first thing to go with treatment. In order to reduce the potential for the recurrence of disc bulges, it is important to understand why they are occurring and resolve the underlying issue, rather than rely on pain as an indication of health.