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Disc Herniation vs Disc Bulge

It’s not uncommon to hear bulging disc and herniated disc used interchangeably, although they are two different things. Discs are a critical part of the spinal architecture, and when something goes wrong with them, it can be life-changing. What is the difference between a bulging and a herniated disc, though? 

What is a Disc?

Let’s start with the basics, what is an intervertebral disc? The name tells you exactly what it is - a disc-shaped piece that sits between (inter) the vertebrae. Discs are a little bit like a jelly-filled donut. They have an outer fibrous ring made of cartilage and a gel-like substance inside. 

The role of a disc is to provide cushioning between the vertebrae. Without discs, every time you took a step, those two bone pieces would hit one another. 

The human spine has 33 vertebrae that connect to give the body support that allows you to take those steps. Twenty-three intervertebral discs protect those vertebrae. As you can imagine, they take quite a bit of abuse in a lifetime, and eventually, discs can start to wear down. 

What is a Bulging Disc?

Over time, the outer layer of a disc can stiffen, and the gel substance loses some of its fluid content. When that happens, the disc may bulge or push out where the cartilage weakens. The budging doesn’t involve the inner part of the disc at this point, it’s just the outer section, the annulus, weakening. If you go back to the jelly donut analogy, the donut is flattened some but still intact. 

Bulging discs are a regular occurrence as people age. By itself, a bulging disc may have not symptoms.

What is a Herniated Disc?

In this case, the dough of the donut ruptures, allowing the jelly to leak out  A herniated disc is similar to the bulging one, but that outer section cracks open, allowing the softer inner gel to push out. You may hear a herniated disc called a ruptured or slipped disc. 

The herniated disc is more likely to cause pain, as well, because it pushes out farther. The pain comes from the disc pressing on a nerve causing irritation to the root. Someone with a herniated disc may also feel weakness in the muscles affected by the nerve and numbness in some areas of the body. 

Not all herniated discs are painful, though. Some don't discover a herniated disc until after they have an MRI for another medical problem. It’s only when the disc comes in contact with nerve roots that you feel pain. 

What is the Treatment for a Problem Disc?

The treatment plan will depend on the severity of the problem. Short-term options would be anti-inflammatory medication like naproxen. If that doesn’t help, the doctor may try cortisone injections or muscle relaxers and physical therapy. In some instances, surgery might be necessary to correct the problem. 

If you have back pain, give 360 Back and Spine Center a call and make an appointment.  (682) 223-1406

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