Bulging Disc

A bulging disc is considered as a contained disc disorder. This means that the soft center of the intervertebral disc (nucleus pulposus) has pushed against the outer fibrous ring (annulus fibrosus) so that, without tearing or rupturing the outer layer, it would appear as a swollen mass. Unlike a protruding disc, however, this condition is not large enough to jut into the spinal canal and compress a nerve root or nerve.


So what causes the symptoms? Despite the absence of nerve compression, a bulging disc induces the release of inflammatory chemical mediators – most notably Tumor Necrosis Factor-Alpha (TNF) and Interleukin-17 (IL-17) – which irritate the nerve roots or nerves.

Most cases of bulging discs do not present with any symptoms at all. In fact, bulging discs are more often incidental findings on CT and MRI scans done on patients who are being evaluated for other diseases.

The pain of bulging discs is usually limited to the site in the spine where it is located. A cervical bulging disc usually presents with neck pain. On the other hand, lumbar bulging discs are characterized by pain in the lower back or buttocks. With persistent nerve irritation, pain may follow the nerve pathway radiation that is observed with protruding or herniated discs.

Relief Options

Since the symptoms are acute, the pain may resolve on its own with a few hours of rest of with the application of ice and hot compresses. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) help not only to relieve pain but also to counteract the nerve irritation caused by the inflammatory mediators.

Patients diagnosed with bulging discs are advised to observe good posture habits and not do any heavy lifting so that the condition will not be aggravated any further. Back strengthening and stretching exercises also help to build stability in the spine and flexibility in the muscles and other supportive tissues.

Bulging discs have been found to respond very well to inversion therapy, a type of traction using an inversion table. A more effective treatment is spinal decompression therapy, which could pull back the swollen nucleus pulposus to the center of the intervertebral disc.

Bulging disc surgery is rarely performed since this condition can be adequately managed through conservative means.

While the condition should not be a cause of great concern for a patient, he or she must observe good posture and perform regular low-impact exercises that would prevent the condition from progressing to a more painful protruding or herniated disc.

Herniated Disc vs. Bulging Disc – What’s the Difference?

You don’t have to look much online or elsewhere to read about the difference both of them. In fact, some claim a bulging disc is a form of herniated disc. Other authors say not.  Who’s right?

  • MedicineNet.com defines “herniation” as an “Abnormal protrusion of tissue through an opening.

Arguably the bulge is a protrusion, but most authors I’ve read do not consider both are same. Instead, the herniation is equated with a disc rupture or prolapsed – which is when the inner disc fluid actually oozes outside the disc itself.

Here’s my take – it doesn’t really matter because at the end of the day, most authors get it right in that a bulging disc is a protruding, yet intact vertebrae disc that may or may not impinge a nerve. On the other hand, a disc is herniated when the cartilage-material-outer surface of the disc actually ruptures and oozes out some of the internal disc fluid. In a nutshell a bulging disc is a misshapen, yet intact disc; and the other one is a ruptured disc.

Some people have no pain from bulging discs and herniated discs, but many do. The pain arises if the bulge or leaking fluid contacts a nerve.

What are Causes?

There are two main causes:

  • trauma; and
  • muscle imbalances.

An example of trauma that causes many disc bulges and herniated discs car accidents. But other types of trauma such as falling, being hit, or slipping can also result in either a bulge or herniation.

Muscle imbalances place pressure on the disc that results in either a bulge or a herniation. Pain occurs if nerve irritation results.

What is a muscle imbalance?

A muscle imbalance results when you have overdeveloped and/or tight muscles in one area of your body and weaker, less-developed muscles elsewhere. The overdeveloped muscles supersede or dominate the weaker, less-developed muscles.

Taking the spine for instance, if you have imbalanced muscles surrounding your spine, then the overdeveloped muscles will place pressure on your spine – such as a disc, for instance. Over time, that pressure will form a bulge, and may ultimately rupture.

Muscle imbalances occur from activities of daily living … using a computer, writing, sitting certain ways, holding cell phones, etc. Our routine activities use select muscles, often on one side of the body, which overdevelops some muscles in relation to other muscles.

Long-term muscle imbalance results in some for of misalignment in your body.  A common muscle imbalance results from imbalanced core muscles causing your pelvis to misalign. When a pelvis is out of proper alignment, which is the base of the spine, the spines curve alters as well.  Any time the curve of the spine occurs, back pain may result – including a bulging or herniated disc.

One approach, a natural approach to ridding you of back pain stemming from a bulging or herniated disc is muscle balance therapy. It makes sense that if your back pain stems from a muscle imbalance, the appropriate treatment is to balance the muscle imbalance – which is muscle balance therapy.