When anyone injures their back, they often search the web and come across one of these two common spine injuries: a bulging disc and a herniated disc. While these conditions cause similar symptoms, both affecting the spinal discs, they are not the same thing. What’s the difference? First, let’s understand what a spinal disc consists of.
The spinal discs
The spine is made of 33 individual bones (vertebrae) stacked one on top of the other. The spinal column provides the main support for the body, allowing us to stand upright, bend, and twist. Between each vertebral body is a cushion called an intervertebral disc, which has three primary functions:
- A shock-absorbing effect within the spine
- Tough ligaments that hold the vertebrae of the spine together
- Cartilaginous joints that allow for slight mobility in the spine
There are a total of 23 intervertebral discs in the spinal column. Each spinal disc is made up of two parts: a tough outer portion (annulus fibrosus) and a soft inner core (nucleus pulposus). It may help to envision these discs as miniature jelly doughnuts.
Many problems can occur with any of these discs, which may prompt unique symptoms, including pain that originates in the disc itself or related to the disc pressing on a nearby nerve.
What is a herniated disc?
A herniated disc occurs when the soft nucleus spurts out through a tear in the annulus. Since there is limited space in the spinal canal, the nucleus of the disc can compress a nerve root or the spinal cord.
Herniated discs are caused by natural degeneration as we age, excessive strain or injury. A herniated disc is more likely to cause pain than a bulging disc because it generally protrudes farther and is more likely to irritate nerve roots. Overall, symptoms of a herniated disc include:
- Pain throughout an arm or leg
- Burning or tingling sensations in the affected area
- Muscle weakness
- Pain or numbness that radiates down one side of the body
What is a bulging disc?
While a bulging disc is very similar to a herniated disc, they do have one difference: a bulging disc refers to when the inner nucleus of a vertebral disc protrudes outward, but the outer layers of the annulus remain intact.
As we age, our discs deteriorate and bulge downward, making age-related degeneration the main cause. A bulging disc may not even cause symptoms in some people. However, if it bulges enough to press on spinal nerves or narrow the spinal canal, then it can lead to symptoms, such as:
Treatment for herniated or bulging disc
There is a spectrum of treatment options for both herniated and bulging discs. Your doctor may recommend trying conservative care first, such as anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy, and steroid injections (if needed).
If a 3-6 month trial of conservative, self-care treatments has not provided relief, schedule an appointment with one of the Center for Interventional Pain & Spine’s (CIPS) specialized providers! We offer advanced interventional and minimally invasive techniques to help treat chronic complex pain. Schedule your appointment today!
CIPS physicians who specialize in spinal conditions:
“Dr. Venk is a skilled and caring Doctor who has significantly helped me with caudal injections. He has a professional way of dealing with patients and makes himself readily available to his patients. I give Dr. Venk my highest recommendation.” – M.C.
“I had been suffering from back pain for the last few years. Dr. Hu has largely eliminated that pain, with a combination of medications and injections. I feel better, I sleep better, and I have so much more energy. Dr. Hu is very kind, and a very good listener. If you are suffering from chronic back pain, go see Dr. Hu, and get your life back.” – J.C.
“I had pain in my left arm and I went to the hospital. They said I had a heart attack, but it came to find out I did not. I made an appointment to come here and was diagnosed with spinal stenosis. Dr. Duffy was actually the one who diagnosed me. My pain has improved 90%. My wife comes here to see Dr. Venk as well. They are two of the nicest doctors around. We are both very happy here.” – T.D.
“This is a wonderful, caring physician. She takes as much time as needed to explain tests, procedures, and results. I’ve sent many of my friends to her. Everyone was impressed.” – G.T.