Bulging Disc Vs Herniated DiscTwo of the more common back pain conditions are bulging discs and herniated discs. While both can cause pain and occur in the discs in your spine, there are some differences. Here are the main differences between a bulging disc vs herniated disc.
A bulging disc is when a disc in your spine literally bulges outside its usual area. Even with this bulging, though, the inner material of your disc (called the nucleus pulposus) is still contained. A herniated disc is not contained. It occurs when your disc actually breaks or ruptures, spilling the jelly-like inner material into the space around the disc. The inner material of a spinal disc is caustic. Because of this, once in contact with anything outside the disc, it can cause severe pain and damage to your surrounding nerves. A herniated disc is also known as a ruptured or slipped disc.
Can a bulging disc become a herniated disc?
The discs in your spine are basically fluid-filled sacs that sit between the vertebrae in the spine and cushion them. They consist of a tough, yet flexible outer shell that protects the soft, jelly-like center. This center is the nucleus pulposus. Since these discs sit between the vertebrae and are part of the spine, they are very near the network of nerves that service your spine and other parts of the body.
Bulging discs are actually fairly commonplace as we age. The spine begins to compress with time. This, in turn, can compress the discs in our spine. This pushes them flatter and in an outward direction. It is only when the bulging portion of the disc comes into contact with nerves that it becomes a painful problem. If the disc bulges far enough, it can begin to put pressure on the nerve, causing moderate to severe pain. Since the nervous system communicates to many places all over the body, a bulging disc in the spine can actually cause pain in the leg or another area.
A herniated disc is simply more damage to your spinal discs to the point that a rupture occurs. If you do not treat a bulging disc, over time it can become a herniated disc. Herniated discs can occur from age-related degeneration or they can also occur after trauma, like a car accident.
Bulging disc vs herniated disc examples
The following images illustrate the differences between a bulging disc and herniated disc. The first image shows a healthy cervical vertebrae, the second a bulging disc, and the third a disc herniation.
Herniated disc example
What helps a bulging disc or herniated disc?
While most people experience pain from bulging and herniated discs, some will never experience pain from this condition at all. It depends on the severity of the bulge or herniation and on your specific anatomy.
If you do experience pain, there are treatment options. Some physicians will choose to begin conservatively, with:
- Physical therapy
- Chiropractic treatment
- Medication for acute bouts of pain
Should conservative treatment fail, a physician will often begin to explore other options.
Bulging disc vs herniated disc treatments
A discectomy is a minimally-invasive procedure that can be done either in an inpatient or outpatient facility. This procedure involves removing the bulging or herniated disc material, thereby removing the source of pain. Many clinical studies and actual patient testimonials have shown this procedure to generally be successful at alleviating the pain due to herniated or bulging discs.
There is also the option of spine surgery to treat a bulging or herniated disc. A microdiscectomy is similar to a discectomy, where the herniated disc material is simply removed.
Another option is spinal fusion surgery, where the surgeon will remove all disc matter and fuse the two vertebrae together, creating one solid bone. Both surgical procedures have also been shown to have success in alleviation of a patient’s pain due to herniated discs.
Surgeries are usually a last-resort treatment. Many patients will find relief from simple complementary therapies. To learn more about how to treat your bulging disc or herniated disc, it may be time to talk to a pain doctor.
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