The Differences Between a Bulging Disc & a Herniated Disc

Category: Spine | Author: Stefano Sinicropi | Date: May 31, 2017

Herniated & Bulging Spinal Disc

As we get older, our spinal discs become more prone to movement or shifting. It’s not unnatural for them to become more flexible, but if they shift too far, they can compress nerves and cause pain.

When these discs shift, it can lead to a bulging or herniated disc. However, sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, and they aren’t exactly the same thing. So today, we take a closer look at the differences between bulging and herniated discs, and how one can lead to the other.

Understanding Bulging Vs. Herniated Discs

Both a bulging and herniated disc are conditions that affect the intervertebral discs in our spine. These discs are oval shaped, and they act as a stress absorber for the spine. Each disc in our spine is comprised of a gel-like center, known as the nucleus pulposus, and a tougher, fibrous outer layer that contains the nucleus. These areas are important for understanding the differences between the two conditions.

  • Bulging Disc – A bulging disc occurs when pressure causes the outer layer to bulge out into the spinal canal. The nucleus of the disc is still contained inside the fibrous layer, but an area of the disc may be misshapen and protruding. For example, imagine you have a small water balloon and you squeeze it a little. All the water stays in the balloon, but the balloon shape will shift a little under pressure. This is essentially what is happening when a bulging disc occurs, although to a much lesser degree than if you squeeze a balloon, because your discs are much more durable and rigid.
  • Herniated Disc – A herniated disc occurs when so much pressure is exerted on an already bulging disc or a healthy disc that the nucleus bursts out of the containment layer and seeps into the spinal canal. Imagine squeezing a jelly-filled donut until some of the filling erupted. A similar process takes place when a spinal disc is overexerted and herniates.

Herniated discs sound painful, and sometimes they are, but symptoms can also be mild. Moreover, bulging discs can be asymptomatic, or they can be more painful than herniated discs depending on how exactly the disc shifts.

Bulging and Herniated Disc Treatment

So while they may sound painful, bulging and herniated discs can typically be treated without surgery. Some common treatment methods for bulging and herniated discs include:

  • Exercise
  • Physical Therapy
  • Stretching Techniques
  • Weight Loss
  • Pain Medications

Conservative treatment options have a high rate of success, but they don’t work for everybody. If after six weeks of failed conservative treatment, or if your surgeon believes your protruding disc could cause nerve or bladder problems, you may need to undergo a minimally invasive surgical procedure to remove part of the damaged disc. Patients who undergo this procedure report high rates of satisfaction and a drop in pain scores, so if you think you’re dealing with a bulging or herniated disc, swing into Dr. Sinicropi’s office to see what he can do for you.

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