Diagnosing a Bulging Disc


What is a bulging disc?

Spinal discs are pads of cartilage located between the vertebrae in the spinal column; they support the spine and keep the back pliable. When the tough, outer cartilage of a disc “bulges out” from the spinal vertebrae, it is considered a bulging disc. This can occur from an injury or the natural “wear and tear” of aging.

Diagnostic process

The diagnostic process for a bulging disc typically includes a medical history/symptom review, physical exam, and imaging tests.

  • Medical history/symptom review
    The diagnostic process typically begins with a medical history and symptom review. A health care provider may ask questions about the location of pain, duration of pain, and what makes it better or worse. The individual may also be asked to rate the severity of pain and to describe whether it is dull, achy, sharp or stabbing and if any tingling or numbness is present.
  • Physical exam
    A physical exam is typically the next step in the diagnostic process. A physician may use their hands to apply pressure along the spine to check for an increase in pain. The individual may be asked to move and bend in various directions so the physician can assess the spine’s range of motion. Muscle strength and reflexes may also be checked to determine if a spinal disc is pressing on a nerve root.
  • Imaging tests
    Various imaging tests may also be ordered. X-rays show the bones of the spine, not the discs, but the images can help a health care professional rule out other potential spine conditions. Computed tomography (CT) scans and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans provide more detailed images, including images of spinal discs. In some cases, a myelogram is performed during a CT scan. A myelogram involves the injection of contrast dye into the affected area to obtain more detailed images of the spinal structures.
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