A bulging disc injury is a common spine injury sustained to your spine’s intervertebral disc. It can occur in your lumbar spine (lower back), thoracic spine (upper and mid-back) or your cervical spine (neck).
Spinal discs are the shock-absorbing rings of fibrocartilage and glycoprotein that separate your bony vertebral bodies, while allowing movement at each spinal level, and enough room for the major spinal nerves to exit from the spinal canal and travel to your limbs.
The annulus is the outer section of the spinal disc, consisting of several layers of multi-directional fibrocartilaginous fibres all densely packed to create a wall around the glycoprotein filled jelly-like disc nucleus.
The degree of spinal disc injury varies considerably from mild disc strains or internal derangments, mild-moderate-severe disc bulges through to complete disc rupture and herniation of the nucleus through the annular wall.
The fluid component, or disc nucleus, in the disc centre is like the caramel inside a chocolate. It normally moves within the annulus adjusting to the pressures placed on your spine.
However, if you injure the annulus, the wall weakens and the nucleus can press outwards on the weakened disc wall, causing your disc to bulge outwards.
A disc bulge (commonly referred to as slipped disc, can potentially press against or irritate the nerve where it exits from the spine. This nerve pinch can cause back pain, spasms, cramping, numbness, pins and needles, or pain into your legs.
What Causes a Bulging Disc?
When a bulging disc, disc herniation or disc rupture occurs, it is typically due to either:
A pre-existing weakness in the annulus, or
A sudden increase in pressure through the disc causing fibres of the annulus to tear.
The causes of disc injury can be summarised under three headings:
Treatment for Bulging Disc
Most minor and moderately bulging disc injuries are treated conservatively without the need for surgery. In order to allow the torn fibres of the annulus to heal and the disc bulge to resolve fully, your bulging disc treatment is centred on encouraging the fluid to return and remain in the centre of the disc. This keeps the torn fibres closer to one another and the structure of the annulus as normal as possible.
Your physiotherapist will advise you on the best positions to stay in and may tape or brace your spine. They’ll also explain to you the postures to avoid, which can be detrimental to your recovery.
By maintain the disc fluid in the central position that you intend it to stay, you are helping Mother Nature to lay down its scar tissue optimally for an excellent long-term solution. Please remember that scar tissue formation will take at least six weeks, so the longer that you avoid aggravating postures the better!
PHASE I – Pain Relief & Protection
Managing your pain is usually the main reason that you seek treatment for a bulging disc. In truth, it was actually the final symptom that you developed and should be the first symptom to improve.
Managing your inflammation. Inflammation is the main short-term reason for why you have suddenly developed bulging disc symptoms. It best reduced via ice therapy and techniques or exercises that deload the inflammed structures.
Your physiotherapist will use an array of treatment tools to reduce your pain and inflammation. These include: ice, electrotherapy, acupuncture, deloading taping techniques, soft tissue massage and temporary use of a back brace. Your doctor may recommend a course of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen.
PHASE II – Restoring Normal ROM, Strength
As your pain and inflammation settles, your physiotherapist will turn their attention to restoring your normal joint alignment and range of motion, muscle length and resting tension, muscle strength and endurance.
Your physiotherapist will commence you on a lower abdominal and core stability program to facilitate your important muscles that dynamically control and stabilise your spine.
Researchers have discovered the importance of your back and abdominal core muscle recruitment patterns. A normal order of: deep, then intermediate and finally superficial muscle firing patterns is normally required for pain-free backs. Your physiotherapist will assess your muscle recruitment pattern and prescribe the best exercises for you specific to your needs.
Your physiotherapist may recommend a stretching program or a remedial massage to address your tight or shortened muscles. Please ask your physio for their advice.
PHASE III – Restoring Full Function
As your backs dynamic control improves, your physiotherapist will turn their attention to restoring your normal pelvic and spine alignment and its range of motion during more stressful body positions and postures. Theyll also work on your outer core and leg muscle power.
Depending on your chosen work, sport or activities of daily living, your physiotherapist will aim to restore your function to safely allow you to return to your desired activities. Everyone has different demands for their body that will determine what specific treatment goals you need to achieve. For some it be simply to walk around the block. Others may wish to run a marathon.
Your physiotherapist will tailor your back rehabilitation to help you achieve your own functional goals.
PHASE IV – Preventing a Recurrence
Back pain does have a tendency to return. The main reason it is thought to recur is due to insufficient rehabilitation. In particular, poor compliance with deep abdominal and core muscle exercises. You should continue a version of these exercises routinely a few times per week. Your physiotherapist will assist you in identifying the best exercises for you to continue indefinitely.
In addition to your muscle control, your physiotherapist will assess your spine and pelvis biomechanics and correct any defects. It may be as simple as providing you with adjacent muscle exercises or some foot orthotics to address any biomechanical faults in the legs or feet.
General exercise is an important component to successfully preventing a recurrence. Your physiotherapist may recommend pilates, yoga, swimming, walking, hydrotherapy or a gym program to assist you in the long-term.
Fine tuning and maintenance of your back stability and function is best achieved by addressing any deficits and learning self-management techniques. Your physiotherapist will guide you.