Coping With a Bulging Disc in the Neck

You might not give it a second thought, but your neck is essential for proper movement.

IF YOU’RE LIKE MOST people, you probably don’t give your neck a second thought until something goes wrong – but it’s important.

In addition to providing support for your head, which can weigh up to 12 pounds, your neck is essential for proper movement. From providing you with a 180-degree range of motion to withstanding strength training, your neck endures a lot of wear and tear over the course of your lifetime.

The cervical vertebrae are located in your neck and considered the most fragile bones of your spine. So, even as strong as your cervical spine may be, it’s not uncommon to develop pain or bulging discs in it at some point. While some are only minor aches or pains that quickly dissipate on their own, there are times when a bulging disc can cause severe medical conditions that warrant medical intervention.

As we get older, the spongy, gel-like substance in between the spinal vertebrae starts to weaken and dry out. When this happens, it can cause a variety of symptoms in the neck, shoulders, arms and back. Acute injury to the neck can also cause disc bulges, which can lead to long-term pain and numbness, as well as a reduced range of motion. In more severe incidents, disc bulges can cause partial or complete loss of function. Disc bulges in the neck usually happen on one side or the other, which is why people often only experience symptoms on one side of the body.

Though some experience symptoms, it’s essential to note that many people have bulging discs and never experience pain or sensory symptoms. Keep in mind, a bulging disc is not the same as a disc herniation. While disc bulges can eventually become disc herniations, a fully herniated cervical disc is much more severe than a bulge. It can require intervention to repair it and to alleviate symptoms associated with it.

In addition to simply getting older, other factors can lead to disc bulges. These include:

Obesity.
Chronically poor posture.
A lack of regular exercise or a sedentary lifestyle.
Smoking.

If you’re diagnosed with a bulging disc, there are things you can do to reduce the experience of symptoms associated with it. If the bulge is the result of overuse, conservative treatment options may include rest and taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications that can be found over-the-counter at grocery or drug stores. Gentle stretching exercises can also help alleviate pressure in the area of bulging. Also, activities that strengthen your neck can provide long-lasting results and may help stabilize all of your cervical musculature, not just the part that is in pain.

Depending on the cervical level involved and the severity of the symptoms you’re experiencing, your doctor might also recommend a course of physical therapy. Physical therapists will teach and watch you perform specific range of motion exercises that will stretch and strengthen neck muscles to help alleviate nerve compression.

At-home traction is another non-surgical form of treatment, which may help reduce neck pain or associated symptoms. Traction involves using assistive devices (even just a towel in some cases) to pull the neck and stretch compressed muscles gently. Of course, any exercise that is new to you should be cleared and, ideally, demonstrated by your health care provider so that you can ensure you’re performing it correctly and safely on your own.

In severe cases where a disc bulging is near complete and causing a loss of sensation or intractable pain, surgical intervention may be necessary.

While it’s impossible to determine when and if you’ll develop a disc bulge, there are things you can do to ward off the possibility. Stay active, eat a healthy diet and avoid heavy lifting or abrupt turning of your neck. If you develop signs of a disc bulge, see your physician for a proper diagnosis. Addressing it as soon as possible is a crucial factor in preventing cervical disc bulges in the neck from becoming complete disc herniations.

Neel Anand, MD

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