What is a Disc Bulge?
A bulging disc is a common injury of the spine where the intervertebral discs are affected. A disc bulge can occur in the cervical spine (neck), lumbar spine (lower back) or thoracic spine (upper and mid-back). A disc bulge is commonly referred to as a protruding disc or a slipped disc. In severe cases of disc bulge, there is protrusion of the disc nucleus through a crack to the annulus. In such cases, it is known as a herniated disc.
What Happens if You Have Disc Bulge?
Anyone can suffer from a disc bulge and they are not always a cause for panic. When there is a disc bulge between the vertebrae, it can compress the nerve which can produce symptoms in those parts of the body that are supplied by that compressed nerve. Common symptoms of a bulging disc consist of pain, muscle weakness and numbness. Symptoms of disc bulge differ from patient to patient depending on the nerves that are affected and the part of the spine which has a disc bulge. In severe cases, a disc bulge can have a big negative impact on a patient's activities of daily living. Some of the examples on a how a disc bulge affects a patient's life includes:
What Happens if You Disc Bulge in the Cervical Spine?
Neck Pain: Patient with disc bulge in cervical spine experiences pain upon moving his/her neck, which makes it difficult to perform even the smallest tasks.
Shoulder Blade Pain: Patient with bulging disc in cervical spine experiences deep pain over or near the shoulder blade. It makes it difficult for the patient to perform any overhead activities, such as reaching up to a top shelf to keep something etc. Patient's shoulders and arms tire easily too which makes it difficult to perform any office work such as working on a computer etc.
Radiating Pain: With cervical spine disc bulge, there will be symptoms of radiation of pain to the upper arm, forearm, and in some cases even to the fingers. Patient finds it difficult to perform any tasks which require the use of hands and fingers, such as holding a pencil etc.
What Happens if You Have Disc Bulge in the Thoracic Spine?
Muscle Weakness: Patient with disc bulge in thoracic spine experiences muscle weakness, numbness which makes it difficult to perform day to day activities. Due to muscle weakness, patient tires easily and has to take frequent breaks in his/her daily work. Patient also experiences tingling sensation in one or both of the legs, which makes it difficult for the patient to stand for long periods of time. Patient also finds it difficult to sit for long periods of time.
Increased Reflexes: Patient with thoracic spine disc bulge will have increased reflexes in either one or both the legs which lead to spasticity. This again creates a lot of problems for the patient as he/she goes about their daily activities, as it is difficult to perform anything if the muscles in the body feel stiff and rigid.
Incontinence: If the disc bulge in the thoracic spine is severe, then patient may also experience changes in his/her bladder or bowel function. Patient may also experience incontinence, which can be a hugely embarrassing situation for the patient and impedes any normal activities of daily living.
Paralysis: Thoracic spine disc bulge patient may have paralysis from the waist down, which can make the patient bedridden and leads to further complications. Patient can suffer frustration, as this condition affects the patient's psychological health also and may cause depression in the patient.
What Happens if You Have Disc Bulge in the Lumbar Spine
Low Back Pain: Patient with disc bulge in lumbar spine commonly experiences lower back pain which can be sharp or dull in nature. The pain can also be burning in type and may radiate to the buttocks, hips, feet and legs. This pain in the lower back makes it difficult for the patient to sit in an upright position.
Weakness, Numbness, Tingling: Patient with disc bulge in lumbar spine experiences numbness, weakness, tingling and muscle spasms in the legs. These symptoms get worse if the patient sneezes, coughs, and bends which make it difficult for the patient to perform any type of activity and hinder the patient from lead a normal life.
Sciatica: If the lumbar disc bulge compresses the sciatic nerve, then this results in sciatica, a condition which involves the leg symptoms, such as pain and numbness originating in the lower back and traveling down the path of the sciatic nerve.
Incontinence: Rarely, patients suffering from a lumbar disc bulge may have loss of bowel or bladder control. In such cases, patient should seek immediate medical attention, as it may indicate cauda equina syndrome.
How Long Does it Take to Recover From Disc Bulge?
Recovery and the duration of recovery period from surgery for a disc bulge depend on many factors and differ from patient to patient. Recovery time for disc bulge depends on the following factors:
- The extent of degeneration present in the disc.
- The site of the disc bulge, i.e. where it is present in the spinal column.
- The length of time or the duration the symptoms were present in the patient.
- Recovery also depends on the severity of the nerve compression, which is producing symptoms, such as pain, discomfort and numbness in the patient.
- Recovery period also depends on the type of treatment plan used in the patient.
There are different guidelines for the disc bulge patient to follow in their recovery period depending on all of the above factors. These guidelines may vary depending on the severity of the bulging disc treated. If the patient is suffering from a mild disc bulge, then he/she may have a more active and shorter recovery period. If the patient had a severe disc bulge, then patient will have a longer recovery period with a longer duration of inactivity and has to gradually ease back into an active lifestyle.
Physical therapy is recommended for most of the patients after the surgery to treat disc bulge, as physical therapy helps speed up the recovery period and helps the patient regain strength, motion and flexibility of the spine faster. Mild stretching exercises are also recommended for faster regaining of the strength and flexibility of the spine. It is important that patient also listen to his/her body and not overdo anything and if there is tiredness setting in, to take rest immediately. This is important for preventing further injury, stress and overwork to the muscles.
It is also important to bear in mind that the body has gone through pain and other symptoms of a disc bulge for many months and it needs to compensate for that by resting it properly after the surgery and not rushing back into heart of things soon. After complete pain relief, patient should gradually start going about their daily activities and exercise program to strengthen the spinal muscles and ease back into the daily habits of moving around. If there is any discomfort or pain during any activity, then patient should stop and rest immediately. If the symptoms of disc bulge persist then seek medical advice ASAP.