A bulging disk is a condition related to the spine, usually the lumbar, or lower back, that occurs when a disk bulges through a crevice in the spine. Disks are the soft, gelatinous material that cushions the vertebrae of the spine. A bulging disk occurs when the disk shifts out of its normal radius and most often occurs simply as a result of age.
A bulging disk is different from a herniated disk in that a bulging disk typically occurs gradually over time rather than suddenly. A herniated disk is often the result of an injury or trauma to the spine. In the majority of patients who experience a bulging disk, there is no pain unless the disk becomes herniated or protrudes into a nerve.
In many cases, a bulging disk may be diagnosed as a condition secondary to another problem. Because a bulging disk does not always cause pain, it may only be found during a routine or diagnostic imaging test such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Typically, a bulging disk is not a problem unless it begins to cause pain, becomes herniated or ruptures.
Treatment for a bulging disk or even a herniated disk is relatively conservative in most cases. Rest and lifting restrictions are common, and a doctor may recommend a combination of heat and ice therapy and anti-inflammatory medications or cortisone injections. Medication may be prescribed to deal with any associated pain.
Though usually a condition affecting the lower back, occasionally, a bulging disk may occur in the neck area. Usually, pain that radiates to the shoulders and arms indicates that a nerve in the neck may be pinched or pushed upon. In the lower back, pain may sometimes radiate to the legs.
A physical examination by your doctor will help determine where your discomfort may be coming from and whether the problem arose gradually or suddenly. In most cases, conservative treatment relieves the problem. Back surgery, though not as common, can relieve severe pain caused by compression on the nerves from a bulging disk that becomes herniated.