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Bulging Discs: Understanding the Worst-Case Scenarios


5.3 - Whats-the-Worst-that-Can-Happen-with-a-Bulging-Disc

If you are dealing with a bulging disc, you are not alone. It is estimated that up to 80 percent of people will experience back pain at some point in their lives, and while a bulging disc can cause discomfort and limit mobility, it is important to understand the worst-case scenarios that can result from leaving one untreated. This article explores the potential risks and complications associated with bulging discs and what you can do to prevent them.

What Is a Bulging Disc?

A bulging disc occurs when the soft material inside the spinal disc protrudes through a crack in the outer layer. This can put pressure on the nerves and cause pain, numbness, or weakness in the affected area. While bulging discs can occur in any part of the spine, they are most common in the lower back (lumbar spine) and neck (cervical spine).

What Are the Risks of Leaving a Bulging Disc Untreated?

While many people with bulging discs experience relief through conservative treatments like physical therapy and pain medication, there are potential risks associated with leaving a bulging disc untreated. Here are some of the worst-case scenarios that can result:

Nerve Damage

One of the most common problems caused by a bulging disc is nerve compression. This happens when the disc presses on a nearby nerve root, causing inflammation and irritation. Depending on which nerve is affected, you may experience symptoms such as sciatica (pain that radiates from the lower back to the buttocks and legs), cervical radiculopathy (pain that radiates from the neck to the shoulders and arms), or cauda equina syndrome (a rare but serious condition that affects the nerves at the base of the spine and can cause loss of bladder and bowel control, sexual dysfunction, and paralysis).

Nerve compression can be treated with conservative measures such as rest, ice, heat, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, or steroid injections. However, if the symptoms are severe or do not improve with time, surgery may be recommended to decompress the nerve and remove the bulging disc.

Herniated Disc

Disc herniation occurs when the outer layer of the disc tears and allows the inner gel-like material to leak out. This can cause more pressure on the nerve root and more severe symptoms than a bulging disc. A herniated disc can also cause inflammation and chemical irritation of the nerve.

Disc herniation can also be treated with conservative or surgical methods, depending on the severity and duration of the symptoms. Surgery may involve removing part or all of the disc (discectomy or less invasive microdiscectomy) or replacing it with an artificial one (disc replacement). 

Spinal Stenosis

Spinal stenosis is a narrowing of the spinal canal, which is the space where the spinal cord and nerve roots run. This can be caused by a bulging disc or other factors such as bone spurs, arthritis, or ligament thickening. Spinal stenosis can cause symptoms such as pain, stiffness, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the back and legs. It can also affect balance and coordination.

Spinal stenosis can be treated with conservative measures such as medication, exercise, or braces. However, if these do not provide enough relief or if your symptoms worsen, spinal stenosis surgery may be required to widen the spinal canal and relieve the pressure on the spinal cord and nerves. 

How Can You Prevent Complications from a Bulging Disc?

There are steps you can take to prevent complications from a bulging disc. Here are some tips to keep your spine healthy and pain-free:

  • Stay active – Regular exercise can keep your back muscles strong and prevent further damage to the spine.
  • Practice good posture – Poor posture can put extra pressure on the spine and lead to bulging discs. Be mindful of your posture when sitting or standing, and consider using ergonomic furniture.
  • Maintain a healthy weight – Excess weight puts additional stress on the spine, which can exacerbate bulging discs.
  • Seek treatment early – Do not wait to seek treatment if you are experiencing back pain. The sooner you address a bulging disc, the better your chances of avoiding complications.

When Should You Seek Medical Attention?

If you are experiencing back pain or other symptoms that may be related to a bulging disc, it is important to seek medical attention. Your doctor may recommend conservative treatments like physical therapy or pain medication, or he or she may suggest surgery if your condition is severe.

A bulging disc can be a painful and limiting condition, but the risks associated with leaving it untreated can be even more serious. By taking steps to prevent further damage to your spine and seeking treatment early, you can avoid the worst-case scenarios and maintain a healthy, pain-free back.

If you have a bulging or herniated disc that is not responding to conservative treatment, your doctor may recommend a discectomy or a less invasive microdiscectomy. Although this is generally a very successful procedure, having a large hole in the outer ring of the disc more than doubles the risk of needing another operation. A new treatment, Barricaid, is a bone-anchored device that closes this hole, and 95 percent of Barricaid patients did not undergo a reoperation due to reherniation in a 2-year study timeframe. This treatment is done immediately following the discectomy—during the same operation—and does not require any additional incisions or time in the hospital. 

If you have any questions about the Barricaid treatment, ask your doctor or contact us at 844-288-7474.

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