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Bulging Disc Vs Herniated Disc: What's the Difference?

April 7, 2022

When you're diagnosed with a bulging or herniated disc, you want to know exactly what that means for your body--and your life.

We get it. Any time something impacts your back and spine, it can affect every part of your day. You want to know how to reduce the discomfort and stop the problem from getting worse.

Whether your slipped discs are the result of a spinal injury or due to a lifetime of physically demanding jobs, this article will help you understand your condition.

Understanding Your Spinal Column

You've seen the skeletons that hang in doctors' offices everywhere, and you know the basics of what a spine looks like. But do you know it it interconnects with the rest of your body?

Here's a short overview of how your spine works, and why a slipped disc or other spinal damage can affect everything you do.

First, we'll start with the bones called vertebrae that make up your spine. These bones protect and support your spinal cord. Most of the weight on your spine is held up through the tiny bones. When you have poor posture, the vertebrae are the most affected.

Each vertebrae has a cushion in between it and the next one. These are called discs. The disc material is a layer of very strong cartilage surrounding a center layer of soft cartilage. They slide between the vertebrae in a perfect fit.

The Importance of Discs

We know to pay attention to our spines to avoid bone damage. However, it's more common to end up with a disc injury.

Like the rest of our bodies, discs are prone to wear and tear over time. When they're in good shape, they act as shock absorbers, preventing your vertebrae from damage. As they age, the discs dehydrate, causing the cartilage to become stiff instead of cushiony.

At that point, the outer layer of the cartilage around the disc's circumference begins to spread out and thin, becoming what we call a bulging disc. Keep in mind that only the outer layer of the disc is affected with this age-related degeneration.

Discs can be injured through injury, too, such as when you're lifting heavy objects or in a car accident. The main difference between a bulging disc vs herniated disc is that a herniated disc has a crack in the outer layer. This crack impacts the inner cartilage, letting is squeeze through like ketchup coming out of a hamburger bun.

Herniated discs are also known as ruptured discs. While they're both very different, a bulging disc and a herniated disc can cause a lot of pain.

Degeneration and Bulging Discs

Bulging discs are almost always the result of the natural aging process. Because of that, it's hard to prevent them. The discs deteriorate, causing that "downward bulge" that pushes the disc out of its normal shape.

The good thing about degenerative conditions like this is that there is a gradual onset. So, you'll notice a lot of other symptoms that give you a heads up there's a problem. With conservative treatment methods, you can't reverse a bulging disc, but you can delay its progression.

Differing Compression Levels

While a disc is slightly compressed, you'll notice pain in your lower back, legs, and buttocks areas. You might have trouble walking sometimes. The severity of the discomfort you feel depends on the discs. Since bulging discs are age-related, the tough outer layer is compressed in multiple spinal discs.

If it's left untreated, a bulging disc can also cause other degenerative issues, like narrowing of the spinal canal (officially termed lumbar stenosis).

Diagnosing and Treating a Bulging Disc

Bulging discs and herniated discs have entirely different diagnosis steps. Because the bulging disc is degenerative, a physician has to pay attention to a variety of risk factors, as well as your pain. In a physical examination, if your medical and past history and symptoms match, diagnostic tests are the next step.

X-rays only show bone damage, making them useless for bulging disc diagnoses. Instead, a CT scan or an MRI are the preferred imaging tests. MRIs in particular show detailed images of the bulging disc, as well as any nerve compression.

Possible Treatments

When a bulging disc is diagnosed, most of the time, you'll have various treatments to work with. This can include anything from anti-inflammatory medicine to steroid injections for short-term pain relief.

However, bulging or herniated discs are long-term problems. Most patients receive physical therapy to teach them how to exercise and stretch at home.

Occasionally, in severe cases, the pain affects your quality of life to the point that pain management isn't helping. This usually happens if lumbar stenosis has resulted from the bulge. A lumbar decompression surgery could help, but whether you're a candidate depends on the type and level of stenosis and your history.

Herniated Or Ruptured Disc Information

Your discs act as protection from shocks and damage. A bulging disc still has all the integral parts; they're just a bit flatter. So this spinal disc problem doesn't always cause pain. But a herniated intervertebral discs often come with severe pain in the cervical spine or lower back.

When a herniated disc occurs, it tends to stick out more than a bulge. They touch the nerve roots around them and cause irritation. The longer the nerve root is irritated, the more inflamed it gets, which tends to cause acute pain.

People who have a ruptured disc can continue their days without noticing a problem. Then, the herniated disc causes pain from seemingly out of nowhere. A sneeze, twisting wrong, or sleeping wrong may be all it takes to irritate nerve roots enough for the pain to kick in.

You may also feel the pain worsening over a few weeks. A herniated disc may show up as neck pain, leg pain, and even chest pain, depending on the nearby nerves that are irritated.

Diagnosing and Treating a Herniated Disc

Bulging discs and herniated discs both have similar diagnoses. First, the physician uses their medical education to connect the person's symptoms with their history. If a herniated disc is suspected, testing is the next step.

Anything going on in the spinal canal outside of the bones needs more than an x-ray. For spinal disc concerns, an MRI is the best imaging option.

Possible Treatments

With a diagnosis of a spinal disc problem like herniated discs, you could be offered a variety of treatments. If the symptoms are still fresh and you don't have nerve damage, an anti-inflammatory medication and muscle relaxers can reduce the swelling to prevent pain.

Physical therapy is important for people with a herniated or bulging disc.

The goal is to keep the softer inner cartilage in the inner core where it belongs. When the nucleus breaks, the nucleus pulposus leaves the disc. At that point, a microdiscectomy may be recommended. This is an outpatient surgery that gets rid of pain by taking the pressure off of a root.

The Earlier You Seek Care, the Better

With any problems in the spine, ignoring them doesn't usually make them go away. Getting conservative treatment through chiropractic care or massage therapy can reduce the symptoms and keep the nerves from becoming irritated.

If your at-home and conservative care doesn't work, talk to your doctor about your concerns. They will work with you to figure out what's going on in your spine to get answers and help!

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