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  • Writer's pictureDr Daniel Mogoai

Understanding Bulging Discs: What Athletes Need to Know

Your body is your greatest weapon as an athlete, and taking care of it is crucial to your performance. However, sometimes injuries happen, and one of the most common injuries that can affect athletes is a herniated disc. In this blog post, we'll take a closer look at what the causes, symptoms, and treatment options are for a bulging disc..

If you are currently in pain due to a bulging disc injury, please contact our Osteopath for help!

An image of a bulging disc shown by a doctor
Bulging Discs causes the nucleus pulposus (jelly-like center of the disc) to leak into the spinal canal

This blog post contains the following:

  • Causes of Bulging Discs in Athletes

  • What are the 4 Types of Disc Herniation

  • What Are Symptoms of a Bulging Disc?

  • How Are Bulging Disc Treated?

  • How to Prevent Herniated discs in Athletes

Causes of a Bulging Discs in Athletes

A bulging disc, also known as a herniated, ruptured or slipped disc, occurs when the soft inner portion of a spinal disc protrudes through a tear in the outer ring. The disc serves as a shock-absorbing cushion between the spine's vertebrae and helps keep the spinal column mobile during sports and everyday activities.

A disc herniation can occur along the spinal column, this includes the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions. However, the lumbar region is most commonly affected and if you’re aged 25-55 years old, then there is a 95% chance this will occur at the L4-L5 and L5-S1 discs.

A person may suffer a disc herniation from various causes, including trauma, repetitive stress, or simply aging. Athletes are particularly at risk for ruptured discs due to the physical demands of their sport. Sports that involve twisting or bending, such as golf, tennis, or gymnastics, can put significant stress on the spinal column, leading to a higher likelihood of bulging discs.

A bulging disc is also commonly associated with lifting heavy objects such as moving a fridge, couch or performing deadlifts in a gym when the lower back is unprepared for the load.

An image showing athletes doing stretching
Image from Sports Injury Bulletin

What are the 4 Stages of Disc Herniation

A spinal disc herniation can vary in its severity, from a simple shift in the spongy cushioning to complete rupture of the connective tissue on the outer portion of the disc.

Below we can see the 4 stages of a disc herniation:

An image of 4 stages of a disc herniation
4 Stages of a Disc Herniation. The nucleus pulposus is forced out of the intervertebral space by a herniated disc in the spine. It frequently leads to back pain.

It’s important to know that although disc herniations may appear on a MRI, it does not always mean a disc herniation is the cause of back pain. Many people with disc herniations have been found to be asymptomatic with no lower back pain.

What Are Symptoms of a Bulging Disc?

The symptoms of a lumbar disc herniation can differ in severity of the injury and usually associated with the level of disc injury. Common symptoms that present with disc herniations at the L4-L5 and L5-S1 levels include:

  • Extreme lower back pain on standing upright, bending forward or lifting objects.

  • Lower back pain radiating to the front of the thigh

  • Lower leg weakness of the inner thigh and glute muscles

  • Pain radiating behind or on the outer side of thigh, back of the calf and foot.

  • Serious complications may include difficulty with urinating, defecating or sexual dysfunction.

How Are Bulging Disc Treated?

The injury's severity and the injured disc's location will determine the best course of treatment for a bulging disc. The research shows several available treatment options, which inlcude:

  • Non-steroidal anti inflammatories

  • Physical therapy such as Osteopathy, Physiotherapy or Chiropractic care

  • Muscle relaxants such as cyclobenzaprine or oral corticosteroids

Most cases of disc herniation resolve within a few weeks after the onset of symptoms; thus, it is not recommended to start physical therapy until symptoms have lasted for at least three weeks.

If symptoms continue for longer than 4 weeks and have seen no improvement from conservative care, such as manual therapy, then secondary treatment options available are;

  • Translaminar epidural injections and selective nerve root blocks

  • Surgical treatment to the vertebrae or disc ie. laminectomies and discectomies

Rest and manual therapy are sometimes sufficient to reduce discomfort and enhance function. Surgery can be required in more severe circumstances to remove the damaged disc.

But if you require more information regarding treatment options or advice regarding surgery, please get in touch with a medical professional or our Osteopath.

How to Prevent Herniated discs in Athletes

While not all disc herniations can be prevented, there are steps that athletes can take to reduce their risk of injury. These include:

  • Maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese has been shown to significantly increase the likelihood of lumbar disc herniations.

  • Get a qualified personal trainer, exercise physiologist or strength and conditioning coach to teach you the correct way to lift weights.

  • Reduce the length of time sitting over a desk or computer and move more frequently

In conclusion, a bulging disc can be a painful and debilitating injury for athletes. However, athletes can recover and excel in their sport with the right treatment and preventive measures. If you are in pain and suspect that you may have a disc herniation, seek advice from a medical professional, like our Osteopath Daniel, to achieve proper care for the state of your condition.

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