Bulging Disc In Lower Back

Bulging Disc In Lower Back: Overview

Alternative Names: Bulging Lumbar Disc, Slipped Lumbar Disc, Lumbar Disc Protrusion.

A bulging disc in the lower back, known as a Bulging Lumbar Disc, is a common spine injury in which a disc in your lower back (lumbar spine) bulges out of its normal space between two vertebrae, "like a hamburger that is too big for its bun".  If it bulges into the spinal canal, it can compress the spinal cord or nerve roots, causing numbness, tingling and/or pain.

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Incidence; Causes and Development; Contributing Risk Factors

Bulging discs mainly affect those over 30 years old, and men twice as much as women.

About 1 to 2% of people have serious problems with bulging discs and, the older we get, the more likely it is that we will be affected.  Bulging discs are more common than herniated discs, but often go unnoticed because they are less likely to cause symptoms.

The intervertebral discs in the lower back play a vital role as cushioning shock absorbers, supporting the upper body and allowing a wide range of movement.  Over time, they naturally begin to deteriorate and wear out due to the stresses put upon them; accidents and spinal trauma can make this happen sooner.

The outer ring (annulus) of a disc can remain intact, yet lose its flexibility and strength over time.  This can cause it to bulge out into space that it should not occupy and form an outpouching that may press against nerves.  The result is pain in the back or pain, numbness and/or tingling in areas of the body that are served by nerves that it presses on.

The most common location for a bulging lumbar disc is between the L4 and L5 vertebrae, where the sciatic nerve (among others) is located.

Risk factors for bulging lumbar discs include:

  • physical inactivity (stay active to maintain strength and mobility, and avoid injury and inflammation)
  • sitting for prolonged periods
  • poor posture, especially when sitting for prolonged periods
  • being overweight (there is more weight for your spine to support)
  • being tall
  • overwork, overtraining, lack of sleep and rest
  • inflammatory diet (sugar, processed meats and snacks, food grown with chemicals, refined grains, alcohol...)
  • smoking (speeds up disc degeneration)

Signs and Symptoms

Although a bulging lumbar disc does not always cause symptoms, for some people it can cause life-changing, disabling pain and disability.  Symptoms can include:

  • lower back pain
  • pain and/or numbness that radiates into the buttocks, legs, and possibly feet (sciatic pain, caused by pressure on the sciatic nerve)
  • impaired mobility due to muscle weakness and/or pain
  • abdominal pain

Even though the bulging disc is located in the spine, the pain that it causes can be felt far away in completely unrelated areas.

Treatment and Prevention

In order to avoid medications or surgery, certain lifestyle changes can help prevent cracking, inflammation and bulging in the spinal discs, and also help heal bulging discs.

Chiropractors can help diagnose the problem, and then perform adjustments that realign the spinal discs and remove any protrusion into the spinal canal.

Physical Therapists can provide guidance and prescribe a set of exercises that help to build up strength and flexibility.

Pharmaceutical treatments include over-the-counter pain killers, anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxers, and steroids.  These do not treat the underlying condition or prevent future occurrences, but simply ease the symptoms.

Approximately 10% of patients with bulging discs undergo corrective surgery.

Prognosis

Bulging discs often heal by themselves within a few weeks or months, especially if lifestyle changes are made.  For others, the pain can last for many months, or come and go, or worsen over time.

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