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What Is A Herniated or Bulging Disc?

ruptured discIf you have been diagnosed with a herniated or bulging disc, you might wonder what the term means. You may also wonder what specifically is wrong with your back and how to fix it in the quickest and safest way possible.

As a spine management physician in Virginia’s Chesapeake region for more than 2 decades, I have extensive experience working with patients who have herniated or bulging discs. In this article, I will explain what a herniated or bulging disc is, as well as the best ways to treat the condition.

But first, it is important to understand some basic physiology of the spine to better understand how a herniated or bulging disc occurs and what it means.

Spinal Cord Basics

The spine has two major roles in the body. First and foremost, it is a support structure for the body, allowing you to move and stand upright. Secondly, the spine protects the nerve of the spinal cord, a major part of the central nervous system.
The spine is further divided into 33 different vertebrae in three distinct areas:

Cervical vertebrae: Made up of 7 vertebrae in the neck. The cervical area is the second most common location for herniated or bulging discs.

Thoracic vertebrae: Made up of 12 vertebrae in the upper and mid-back behind the chest. Herniated or bulging discs in this area are rare.

Lumbar vertebrae: Made up of 5 vertebrae in the lower back. This is the location for most herniated or bulging discs.

Besides the vertebrae in your spine, your spine contains discs. These discs separate the vertebrae, providing cushioning. Each disc is made up of two components:

Nucleus pulposus: This is the inner part of the disc. It is relatively elastic and absorbs shock when you move. It has the consistency of jelly and is made of water but also contains collagen fibers for support.

Annulus fibrosus: This is the outer part of the disc. It is multi-layered and surrounds and protects the nucleus pulposus.

What Does Herniated or Bulging Disc Mean?

When someone refers to a herniated or bulging disc, they mean that an intervertebral disc of the spine has lost its typical shape or consistency. This occurs when the inner material of the disc, known as the nucleus pulposus, leaks out of its tough fiber covering known as the annulus fibrosus. It is possible for more than one disc to slip at a time. Herniated or bulging discs can also be colloquially called:

  • Ruptured discs
  • Torn discs
  • Protruding discs
  • Slipped discs

From a purely medical perspective, however, these terms are not always interchangeable. For example, a bulging disc is often intact. In contrast, in a herniated disc, the annulus fibrosus tears and the nucleus pulposus spills out into the surrounding area.

What Causes A Herniated or Bulging Disc?

The most common causes of a herniated or bulging disc are trauma, like from a car accident, and age-related degeneration as the disc weakens with age.

Additional risk factors for a herniated or bulging disc include:

  • Family history of bulging or herniated discs
  • Male sex
  • Lifting heavy objects
  • Excessive weight
  • Repetitive movements which bend or twist the lower back
  • Sitting or standing for long periods
  • Inactivity
  • Smoking

Why Does A Herniated or Bulging Disc Cause Pain and Weakness?

A herniated or bulging disc can cause many different symptoms, with pain being one of the major signs. This is because a herniated or bulging disc’s shape often distorts on the sides and back of the disc, where the annulus fibrosus is thinner and weaker.

Unfortunately, the sides and back of the disc are also often the closest part of the disc to the sensitive spinal nerves. For this reason, herniated or bulging discs can cause a variety of different kinds of problems, including:

Nerve compression: This is due to the pressure from the disc in the small space of the spine that also contains the nerves. As a result, nerve pain can occur, as can weakness in the arms or legs, depending on where the herniated or bulging disc is. Nerve pain often feels like a radiating or shooting pain but can also feel like a numb sensation.

Nerve irritation: If the contents of the herniated or bulging disc spill out into the surrounding area, they can physically irritate the nerves, leading to nerve pain.

Localized pain: The herniated or bulging disc itself can cause pain, which is also referred to as discogenic pain. This pain is due to nerve receptors in the annulus fibrosis of the disc itself, and often feels like an achy pain.

Spinal instability: When you have a herniated or bulging disc, your spinal motion may be impacted. You may notice that you can move your spine more than usual, or less than usual. These movements may be accompanied by pain.

How Is A Herniated or Bulging Disc Treated?

A herniated or bulging disc can be treated in several different ways. Often, the disc will heal on its own, although this process can take weeks. Further, complications are possible, including spinal stenosis (a narrowing of the spinal column) and spinal fracture. If your herniated or bulging disc is in the lumbar region of your spine, The North American Spine Society’s guidelines on spinal care support chiropractic care as a treatment option if you have pain. Other, more invasive remedies are also available, including steroid injections in the spine or disc removal.

Treating Slipped Discs With Chiropractic at Precision Spinal Care

As a certified NUCCA chiropractor and spine management physician, I work closely with you to improve your back health and treat disc problems including herniated or bulging discs.

To accomplish this, during your first visit, I will do a thorough examination. Afterward, I will go over my evaluation with you in detail. Together, we will set reasonable expectations and milestones. We will also put together a treatment plan that meets your care needs, taking the root cause of your herniated or bulging discs into account. I will reevaluate you to make sure you are meeting your goals.

My experience and expertise in spinal biomechanics allow me to competently and safely address your herniated or bulging discs. I am a trauma and hospital-qualified spine management physician. I have credentials in MRI spine interpretation, spinal biomechanical engineering, and orthopedic testing through the Academy of Chiropractic. I am also a fellow in Spinal Biomechanics and Trauma which is recognized through the SUNY Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine.

If we determine that chiropractic is not the best solution for your herniated or bulging disc, I will recommend the type of specialist who is most appropriate for you. I may also recommend other specialists that can be used in conjunction with chiropractic care to help you meet your needs.

We understand that you need to explore all your options when you are trying to treat your pain. At Precision Spinal Care, we are happy to help you determine the best way to address your specific needs and discuss all the options with you and your family.

Call our office at (757) 382-5555 to speak to the doctor or set up a consultation. You can also set up an appointment online.

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