Can A Bulging Disc Cause Abdominal Pain?

By Dr. Brent Wells, DC

There are many possible causes of abdominal pain. Some of them are serious and others are only a passing discomfort. But, on rare occasions, a bulging disc may be the culprit.

It’s rare to have a bulging disc causing abdominal pain, but it’s possible. When this happens, it’s typically due to a herniated disc in the upper back, also known as the thoracic spine. When the disc bulges laterally, or sideways, it can cause abdominal pain, among other symptoms.

Thoracic Herniated Disc

The thoracic spine is the area between the base of the neck and the lower back. Since this section of the spine is surrounded and stabilized by the ribcage, most people don’t experience disc herniation there. It is much more common for people to have a herniated disc in the low back or the neck, since both those areas see a lot of movement and are generally less stable than the thoracic spine.

But that doesn’t mean thoracic disc herniation is not possible. It does happen, and when it happens, a large enough herniated disc can often cause abdominal pain. Since it’s such a rarity, many physicians don’t immediately think of it when a patient presents with pain in the abdomen. This generally leads to unnecessary and often expensive tests to try and find the problem.

Of course, it’s not the only cause of pain in the abdomen. It often is accompanied by pain in the mid-back and the chest wall.

Lateral Disc Herniation

It takes a special kind of disc herniation to cause pain in the abdomen. This is known as a lateral disc herniation. When a disc bulges laterally, or sideways, in the thoracic spine, it can press on and irritate the nerve root branching out from the spine. This is what causes someone to feel pain in their abdomen.

Luckily, most people find natural pain relief for a herniated disc in this area. Of course, this depends on the cause of the herniation.

Causes

Most thoracic disc herniations are caused by trauma to the upper back, such as a fall, car accident, or a sports injury. But, they can also be caused by degenerative disc disease, such as arthritis. When this happens, it can cause the calcification of the discs, which may call for invasive treatment.

Simple things like reaching up to grab something or twisting (like when putting on a seatbelt) can cause the pain to become worse.

Most thoracic disc herniations occur in younger people as a result of trauma to the area. Those that have degenerative disc disease often seek treatment between the age of 40 and 60, but they usually have been dealing with pain and related symptoms for some time before they decide to seek treatment.

Women also seem to be more affected by thoracic disc herniation causing abdominal pain. One study suggested women were affected more than men by as much as four to one.

Outlook

Most people’s first question about any kind of disc herniation is usually, “Can it heal without surgery?” The answer, for most people, is yes. Those rare few with unbearable pain or paralysis may need to consider surgery before other treatments, but for most others, conservative treatments are the way to go.

Since the thoracic spine is surrounded by rib bones, surgery is often risky and best avoided. The best treatment options involve:

  •  Chiropractic care
  •  Limited rest
  •  Non-steroidal Anti-inflammatory Drugs
  •  Back strengthening exercises.

For most, the long-term effects of a disc herniation are nothing to worry about when proper treatment is sought.

Now, we’ll answer some other common questions about disc herniations that may cause abdominal issues.

Can A Bulging Disc Cause Digestive Problems?

There is currently limited scientific and peer-reviewed information that shows a direct link between a bulging or herniated disc and digestive problems. However, there are studies that suggest this is the case. One such study found that 50% of the patients presenting with herniated discs complained of digestive problems, including irritable bowel syndrome.

Granted, the study was small, but it was enough for the authors to suggest that more studies should be done on the connection between digestive issues and disc herniation.

Herniated Disc and Stomach Bloating

Bloating and digestive problems often go hand in hand. Knowing this, you may not be surprised to find that herniated discs can also cause bloating as well as abdominal pain and back pain. But, the two are not always related. In fact, bloating and other digestive issues can cause back and abdominal pain.

Most of the time the pain and bloating will go away after a bowel movement or as time passes. But it’s important to see a medical professional if the problems persist more than a few days.

Can a Herniated Disc Cause Gas?

Like bloating, gas is often associated with digestive problems. In some cases, a herniated disc can cause gas. Not everyone with a herniated disc will present with digestive problems or gas, but there’s an increasing amount of evidence that suggests that nerve compression in the spine due to disc herniation can affect the digestive system.

If you’re experiencing back pain, abdominal pain, and digestive issues, you may be wondering when to seek treatment, and what kind of treatment is best.

When to Seek Treatment

If you’re experiencing paralysis, numbness, an inability to control your bowels, or unbearable pain you should seek immediate medical treatment. If, however, your symptoms come and go or they haven’t been present for more than a couple of days, you may want to wait and see if they go away on their own.

When it’s time to seek treatment, chiropractic care is a good option. Chiropractors specialize in spinal care. They approach any issue with the entire body in mind. They understand that the nervous system, which travels through the spinal column, can cause all kinds of issues throughout the body. This includes abdominal pain and digestive issues.

They can also relieve pain, assign exercises, help with nutrition tips, and even talk to you about the best sleeping position to avoid pain at night. They use many different techniques to treat disc herniations. Some of these include:

  • Full-body diagnosis.
  • Detailed medical history.
  • MRI, CT, or X-Rays to affirm a herniated disc.
  • Spinal adjustments to take the pressure off the disc.
  • Pain and inflammation-relief modalities such as laser therapy, ultrasound, ice and heat, and electrical stimulation.
  • Chiropractic Massage.
  • Physical therapy exercises.

Resources:
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2758438/
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3723187/
https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321833

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About the Author

Dr. Brent Wells, D.C.

Dr. Brent Wells has been a trusted chiropractor since moving his family from Oregon to Alaska back in 1998 and founded Better Health Chiropractic & Physical Rehab – B.S. from Univ. of Nevada, Doctorate from Western States Chiropractic College, volunteer for Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy Foundation, and member of the American Chiropractic Association. As a chiropractor his focus is on family, including his 3 children and wife of 20+ years, his clinics, and ongoing education.

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