If you believe you have a bulging disc, sometimes called a slipped disc or herniated disc, you are not alone.

Before we discuss the best exams let’s quickly find out how we define what it is.

What Is a Bulging Disc?

A bulging disc is a condition that typically affects adults ages 30 to 50 and occurs in twice as many men as it does women. Moreover, 20% of people under the age of 60 have one or more bulging discs.

Think of a disc as a jelly donut that sits between the vertebrae that protect your spinal cord. A herniation or bulge means some of the fillings has slipped out due to a tear or rupture of the outer layer of tissue. When that happens, there can be pressure on nearby nerves causing pain.

bulging disc

Degenerative disc disease problems like a slipped disc can happen naturally due to aging. As a person grows older, these discs can lose their flexibility, making them more prone to rupture. They can also be the result of being overweight, lifting improperly or a fall or other injury.

There many different conditions that can cause back pain, though, so a proper diagnosis is critical to ensure you get the right treatment.

What Are the Symptoms of a Bulging Disc?

First, you should know what symptoms to look for in a bulging disc. The location of the pain tells a story, for example. Typically, bulging discs occur in the lumbar region of the spinal column, or the lower back. Individuals with a slipped disc in this region will feel pain in the:

  • Leg
  • Buttock
  • Calf
  • Thigh

It is possible to have a herniation in the cervical spine, as well — that’s the neck area. When this happens, there is can be a pain in a shoulder or arm. If your symptoms fit, the next step is to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis.

During the Exam

A physician will perform specific tests during an exam to determine if there is a problem with a spinal disc. The review will likely start with the doctor probing your back for tenderness. WIth you lying flat on a table, the doctor may have you move your legs into certain positions like outstretched or knees bent. The goal is to see what kind of movement causes you pain.

Finally, the exam can include neurological testing to assess:

  • Muscle strength
  • The presence and power of reflexes
  • Gait and posture as you walk away
  • Nerve sensation using a light touch, pinpricks, and vibration

At this point, based on your medical history and the exam results, the physician may be able to determine if you have a slipped disc or not.

4 Types of Imaging Tests for a Bulging Disc

Additional testing can confirm the diagnosis and pinpoint the affected nerves, though. Images paint a picture for the care team that shows the extent of the injury and the exact location. Using that information helps the doctor create a care strategy. It also sheds light on whether the patient has a chronic back pain problem from aging or if an injury caused a healthy disc to slip.

1. X-Ray

X-rays use electromagnetic radiation to show an outline of the skeletal structure. Although an x-ray is not detailed enough to prove there is a bulging disc, this test can rule out other potential causes of the pain such as a spinal misalignment or tumor.

2. Computerized Tomography (CT)

CT scans use the same technology as an x-ray but take measurements to generate a picture beyond what you see with the x-ray. CT scans can show organs and soft tissue, as well.

With this form of imaging test, the physician can see the spinal column from different angles including getting a cross-section of it. The increased detail makes spotting a bulging disc more likely. X-rays provide just one perspective, which is why they do not help locate a problem disc.

3. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)

MRI for bulging disc

MRIs take imaging to the next level using radio waves and magnetic fields. This diagnostic test creates enough detail to see the herniation and to identify the affected nerves. The comprehensive picture gives physicians full details of the bulging disc, allowing them to understand how it affects your body and why.

4. Myelography

The myelogram is an x-ray or CT scan taken after the injection of dye into the spinal fluid. The dye serves as a contrast medium to help identify injuries to the spinal column such as a herniated disc. It’s a test that is old school but sometimes used when an MRI is not the best option for some reason such as patient anxiety.

Other Treatment Options

Imaging is just one category of tests done to diagnose a bulging disc. There are many treatment approaches for a bulging disc including medication, physical therapy or surgery. There are also less invasive ways to deal with chronic back pain such as electromyograms and HF10 therapy.


Nerve studies can offer further information, however, especially if surgery is a consideration.

An electromyogram is a form of electrodiagnostic medicine that uses an instrument to record electrical activity in the skeletal muscles. Recording this activity helps to map out nerves in and around the injured disc. Once testing is complete and diagnosis of degenerative disc disease is made, doctors will look to craft a specialized care plan to:

  • Manage pain
  • Increase mobility
  • Improve the quality of life

HF10 Therapy

HF10 is a cutting edge advanced spinal cord stimulation treatment that helps calm irritated nerves. It’s fast, minimally invasive and does not require hospitalization, which is what patients can expect with surgical interventions such as partial disc removal or vertebrae fusion.

Finding the Right Pain Management Provider to Treat Your Bulging Disc

Chronic back pain interferes with every part of life from personal relationships to your ability to make a living. The pain specialists at MidSouth Pain Treatment Center are experts in interventional and innovative back pain treatments. With locations around the MidSouth region including Southaven, Memphis, Oxford, Tupelo, and Jackson (TN), finding a clinic near you is easy!

Schedule an appointment with MidSouth Pain Treatment Center today to start your pain management journey for your bulging disc.