Disc Bulge

Is a Bulging Disc a Serious Problem?

bulging disc
The spinal discs are cushions in the vertabrae.. Nancy Ross / Getty Images

A 'disc bulge' is a word used to describe findings seen on a MRI study of the spinal discs. The spinal discs are soft cushions that rest between the bones of the spine, the vertebrae. When a disc is damaged, it may herniate, or push out, against the spinal cord and spinal nerves.

A 'disc bulge' is a word commonly used to describe a slight outpouching of the disc. The words 'disc bulge' imply that the disc appears symmetric with a small amount of outpouching, and no significant herniation.

Disc bulging is often an incidental finding on MRI. As people age, disc bulges are commonly seen on MRI. Disc bulges can be seen in patients with no symptoms of back problems, especially in patients over the age of 40. A physical examination can help distinguish a disc bulge that is causing problems from a disc bulge that is an incidental finding.

Should You Worry About a Bulge

A finding of a bulging disc is difficult to interpret in isolation.  For the most part, bulging discs are very normal findings, even in young, active patients, and they are rarely thought to be a source of back pain.  If anything, a significant disc bulge would be expected to cause leg pain as a result of irritation to the nerves going down the legs.

Radiologists often detect disc bulging on an MRI and often include this finding in an MRI report.  This can cause anxiety for patients who worry they are developing a serious spinal problem.

  However, studies have shown over and over, that disc bulges are incredibly common, and can be seen on MRIs of people without back pain or spine problems.

Treatment of Disc Bulges

The truth is, most disc bulges don't need treatment, but the cause of back pain needs to be better understood and treated.

  MRIs are not perfect tests, and the fact is they allow us to "see" a bulging disc, but we often don't see muscle strains or ligament injuries.  The vast majority of cases of back pain are dues to muscular strains, and therefore treatment is often targeted at improving the function of the muscles of the spine and core.

There are some situations when the discs are abnormal and can be a source of pain.  When pain is the source of pain, people often refer to this as discogenic back pain.  This is not quite the same as a bulging disc, although discogenic pain can occur in people who have a bulging disc.  Rarely are invasive or surgical treatments used for the treatment of a bulging disc.

Sources:

Boden, SD, et al. "Abnormal magnetic-resonance scans of the lumbar spine in asymptomatic subjects. A prospective investigation" J Bone Joint Surg Am. 1990 Mar;72(3):403-8.

Also Known As: Bulging Disc

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