You probably take your neck bones (called cervical vertebrae) for granted, but they actually play a significant role. Besides supporting your head, which weighs between 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 encounter problems from time to time. One of the most serious conditions involving your neck bones is a bulging disk.
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 up the spine. You have 24 total vertebrae and the uppermost seven are located in your neck. The top part of your spine is called the cervical spine.
Your vertebrae are connected by muscles, ligaments, and tendons. Together, they form your spinal column. Because the vertebrae are ring-shaped, your spine has a hollow canal that encases and protects millions of nerve fibers that form your spinal cord.
What Is a Bulging Disk?
In between your vertebrae are gel-filled disks that act as shock absorbers and help with spinal movement. When a disk is damaged, it may bulge, pushing backwards into the spinal canal. The disk usually bulges toward one side of the canal (either right or left), which is why you’re likely to have pain and tingling on just one side of your body.
A bulging disk in your neck may be relatively painless. Or it can cause severe pain in your neck, as well as 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
While the terms bulging disk and herniated disk are often used interchangeably, a herniated disk is actually a fully ruptured disk. Bulging disks can eventually become herniated disks.
Causes of Bulging Disks
Degenerative disk disease is the most common cause of bulging disks, often resulting in spinal osteoarthritis. Spinal disks absorb a lot of wear and tear. Over time, they start to degenerate and weaken. Other factors that can cause or contribute to bulging disks include:
- strain or injury
- poor posture
How Are Bulging Disks Diagnosed?
Doctors use a combination of physical examination techniques and imaging tests, including spinal X-rays, computed tomography scans (CAT scan or CT scan), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), to diagnose a bulging or herniated disk. An electromyogram (EMG) may be given to assess the condition of affected nerves.
Fortunately, there are several treatment options for a bulging disk:
- Conservative treatment, or nonoperative management, including rest and medications, is often enough to heal a bulging cervical disk.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen are the first-line of prescription medications for a bulging disk. For more severe pain, you may be given a muscle relaxer or narcotic pain relievers.
- Physical therapy (PT) to relieve pressure on the nerve is often recommended.
- At-home traction devices may also be used to ease pressure on the nerve.
- Cortisone injections (known as epidural steroid injections, or ESI) into the spine can provide longer-term relief.
- There are various surgical procedures used to treat cervical herniation. However, only about 10 percent of people with bulging disks ultimately require surgery.