Bulging Discs: About that Pain in Your Neck

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

You probably take your neck bones (called cervical vertebrae) for granted, but they have a significant role. Besides supporting your head, which weighs around 9 to 12 pounds, they also allow you to swivel your head a full 180 degrees. This can take quite a toll on your cervical vertebrae, the seven most delicate bones in your spine.

Knowing this, it makes sense that your neck may have problems from time to time. One of the most serious conditions involving your neck bones is a bulging disc.

Them bones

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If you’ve ever looked closely at the neck bones of a turkey or chicken, you’ve no doubt seen how all these small vertebral bones connect to make the spine. Muscles, ligaments, and tendons connect each vertebrae to the next. Vertebrae are ring-shaped, giving your spine a hollow canal that encases and protects the millions of nerve fibers that form your spinal cord.

You have 24 total vertebrae, and the uppermost seven are in your neck. The top part of your spine is the cervical spine. Below it is the thoracic spine, and below the thoracic spine is the lumbar spine. These three sections of your spine, along with the sacrum and coccyx (tailbone) below the lumbar region, form your spinal column.

What is a bulging disc?

Between each vertebrae is a gel-filled disc that acts as a shock absorber and helps the spine move. A damaged disc, may bulge, pushing backwards into the spinal canal. The disc usually bulges toward one side of the canal (either right or left), which is why people with a bulging disc are likely to have pain and tingling on just one side of the body.

A bulging disc in your neck may be relatively painless. Or it can cause severe pain in your neck, as well as your shoulders, chest, and arms. It may also cause numbness or weakness in your arms or fingers. Sometimes, this pain and numbness may even cause you to think that you’re having a heart attack.

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Some people incorrectly use the terms bulging disc and herniated disc interchangeably. A herniated disc is a fully ruptured disc. Bulging discs can eventually become herniated discs.

Causes of bulging discs

Spinal discs absorb a lot of wear and tear. Over time, they start to degenerate and weaken. Degenerative disc disease is the most common cause of bulging discs, often resulting in spinal osteoarthritis. Other factors that can cause or contribute to bulging discs include:

  • strain or injury
  • obesity
  • smoking
  • poor posture
  • inactivity

How are bulging discs diagnosed?

If you have pain that could be from a bulging or herniated disc, your doctor will give you a physical exam. You’re also likely to have one or more imaging tests. These include spinal X-rays, computed tomography scans (CAT scan or CT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans. Your doctor may recommend an electromyogram (EMG) to check the condition of affected nerves.

Treatment options

Fortunately, there are several ways to treat a bulging disc.

  • Conservative treatment is also called nonoperative management. It includes rest and medications and is often enough to heal a bulging cervical disc.
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are the first-line prescription medications for a bulging disc. For more severe pain, your doctor may prescribe a muscle relaxer or narcotic pain reliever.
  • Physical therapy (PT) may relieve pressure on the nerve.
  • At-home traction devices can ease pressure on the nerve.
  • Cortisone injections (known as epidural steroid injections, or ESI) into the spine can provide longer-term relief.
  • Various surgical procedures treat cervical herniation. However, only about 10 percent of people with bulging discs ultimately require surgery.

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