Bulging Disc Treatment: Is Inversion Therapy Right for You?

Woman with back pain: bulging disc treatment

There’s nothing like back pain to cause your lifestyle to come to a grinding halt. Especially if you need bulging disc treatment. So let’s find out what a bulging disc is as compared to a herniated disc (also known as a slipped disc or ruptured disc) and how both of these problems differ. Then we’ll find out how treatments like inversion therapy can help and what it involves.

Sound like a plan? Okay, here we go.

What Do Those Discs Do?

Your spine consists of 24 separate vertebrae in four regions — the cervical, thoracic, lumbar, and pelvic regions. A rubbery disc that looks something like a large button cushion them. Called intervertebral discs, they provide cushioning and act as shock absorbers for your spine. They help to support your weight and keep your vertebrae from rubbing each other. At about one inch in diameter and a quarter-inch thick, each of your discs has a tough, fibrous outer membrane called the annulus fibrosus, WebMD reports. The rubbery core inside the disc is called the nucleus pulposus.

image of spine for bulging disc treatment article cervical thoracic lumbar pelvic spine on grey female figure

Here’s your spine at a glance.
Image: CC0, by vsion, via Wikimedia Commons

The discs are tucked firmly between each vertebra and have little room for movement, especially since they are held in place by ligaments that connect to the spinal bones.

In most cases, they just hang around minding their own business, but as we grow older, the fibrous outer portion of the disc weakens, and that’s when problems can occur, the Laser Spine Institute reports. When we are children, the discs are filled with a gel-like substance that solidifies as we age. Once we reach early adulthood, the blood supply to the discs comes to a halt, and the soft inner material hardens, reducing the elasticity of our intervertebral discs. By the time we reach middle age, our discs have the consistency of hard rubber. These age-related changes make us more prone to spinal injuries. Those injuries can include bulging or herniated discs.

Please note that if you suspect you’re dealing with either of these problems, you should contact your doctor for a proper diagnosis before getting bulging disc treatment.

What’s the difference between a herniated disc and a bulging disc?

According to the Mayo Clinic, a herniated disc occurs when a crack forms in the fibrous outer membrane, allowing some of the softer inside layer to protrude outside the disc. Keep in mind that a herniated disc is a bulging disc that’s become torn. And while you’re not likely to feel pain with a bulging disc, a herniated one will definitely let you know it’s there. This is due to the fact that it sticks out a bit farther than a bulging disc, and is likelier to irritate nerves, either due to compression of the nerve or from inflammation of the nerve root.

The photo below shows a herniated disc and a pinched (or compressed nerve):

image illustrating low back pinched nerve of the spine above the coxxyx

Here’s what a herniated disc and a pinched nerve look like.
Image: 3.0 Unported (CC 3.0), by BruceBlaus via, Wikimedia Commons

When a bulging disc occurs, sometimes a quarter or half of the perimeter of the disc is affected. It can, however, also affect the entire perimeter, but only the tough, fibrous outer layer is affected. Which means you may not feel pain.

The photo below shows various disc-related problems, including a bulging disc.

What a bulging disc looks like.
Image: (CC by SA 3.0), by Harrygouvas, via Wikimedia Commons

But that’s not necessarily a good thing, because you may unknowingly cause more damage. If the bulging disc pinches a nerve, you may feel pain radiating down to your lower back. Pain may also radiate to your hips, buttocks, legs, and feet. If you are developing a bulging disc in the area of your cervical spine, you’ll feel pain in your neck that may radiate down to your shoulders and all the way down to your fingers.

Symptoms of a bulging, or herniated disc vary depending on where they occur.

In the cervical spine

In this case, the symptoms are: tingling, numbness, weakness in the neck, shoulders, arms, and fingers are often accompanied by pain. Compression of the spine sometimes leads to myelopathy. If this happens, your symptoms may include difficulty walking, heaviness in your legs, and the loss of fine motor skills in your fingers.

In the thoracic region

Bulging discs in the thoracic area aren’t common, but when they do happen, the symptoms include pain in the upper back that may radiate to the chest and stomach. Which can make you think you’re having heart, lung, or digestive problems. If any of this is happening, it’s important that you contact your doctor to make sure you have an accurate diagnosis.

In the lumbar region

A bulging or herniated disc in the lumbar region of your spine can cause some pretty widespread pain that can be dull, burning, or sharp. It can radiate to your hips, buttocks, and down your legs to your feet. The symptoms can be accompanied by weakness, numbness, tingling and muscle spasms in your legs. The symptoms may worsen with sneezing, coughing, or bending. And while this is rare, symptoms can include loss of bladder and bowel control. Emergency surgery is needed in this case, because it’s a symptom of cauda equina syndrome, which can result in permanent paralysis.

How are bulging or herniated discs diagnosed?

Your doctor will likely give you a physical exam, HealthLine notes. Spinal x-rays, computed tomography scans (CAT or CT scans), and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may be the order of the day as well. Your doctor may also order an electromyogram to check if any nerves are being affected.

Non-surgical Herniated Disc Treatment

Non-operative management (also called conservative management) for bulging disc treatment involves rest and medications. It’s highly successful, especially for bulging cervical discs. Your doctor may also prescribe medications like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (especially ibuprofen). Pain-relieving drugs may be prescribed if your condition is really painful.

Many physicians also recommend physical therapy and home traction devices for bulging disc treatment. Either of these methods can relieve pressure on tormented nerves. It’s for this reason that doctors and therapistsinversion therapy for bulging disc treatment. As HealthCentral notes, inversion therapy can alleviate pressure on compressed nerves and help relieve muscle spasms.

What is inversion therapy?

It’s a type of therapy in which your feet are elevated above your head, and it’s been around for decades, Christina Lasich, M.D. notes, in an article for HealthCentral. It’s a way of dealing with the forces of gravity, and it can definitely help fight pain during bulging disc treatment. Researchers noted in 1978 that using an inversion table lengthens the spine and slows down muscle activities.

Here’s an inversion table at work.
Image: (CC by SA 3.0), by giorgostr, via Wikimedia Commons

One reason why doctors and physical therapists recommend inversion tables is that they provide traction that takes pressure off of the spinal discs. With regular use, it can help people with herniated or bulging discs, spinal stenosis, and degenerative disc disease. But what’s also nice about inversion therapy is that it’s something you can do from home. However, using one of these tables can be a little challenging because you need to have someone strap you onto the table. After placing your feet into a pair of anti-gravity boots, you hang upside-down briefly (for five minutes or less). And for many people, inversion tables can be a little rough on the knees and ankles despite their efficacy for bulging disc treatment.

Or why not try an inversion chair for bulging disc treatment?

Fortunately for those of us who are a bit less rugged, there are also inversion chairs. These work by allowing you to place your feet above your head while still in a seated position. There’s plenty of upsides to this — including the fact that it puts less pressure on your leg joints. It also allows for better balancing and doesn’t impact your blood pressure as much. Because after all, that hanging upside down puts quite a bit of pressure on your circulatory system. Lasich notes that inversion chairs provide for better posture support and better control of your lumbar spine.

There’s a note of caution, however. People with heart or circulatory conditions should check with their doctors before dangling upside down.

Curious to find out more about using an inversion table? Check out the video below.


Featured Image: CC0 Public Domain, by DARIA NEPRIAKHINA, via Magdeleine

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