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What is a Herniated Disc vs a Bulging Disc?

May 23, 2023Articles

Back injuries are an unfortunately common result of many types of accidents, from workplace injuries and car accidents to slip-and-fall accidents. One out of 5 reported workplace injuries are back injuries. A back injury is painful and limits mobility. Often the results are long-term discomfort and varying degrees of disability. While some common back injuries involve soft tissue damage like back strains and sprains, others involve the vertebrae and discs surrounding the spinal cord. Each vertebra of the back is separated by the ones directly above and below by a cushioning disc that prevents the bones from grinding together with the motion of the upper body. When one of these important “shock absorbers” sustains wear and tear or sudden damage, it can cause significant and even debilitating pain and stiffness.

Most people have heard the terms herniated disc and bulging disc used interchangeably, but are both conditions the same? According to specialists, the two conditions are distinctly different and have different causes and impacts on the body.

Understanding the Anatomy of a Disc in the Back

Understanding the Anatomy of a Disc in the Back

The human back is supported by a stacked series of vertebrae separated by rubbery discs, all with a channel down the center for the spinal cord. Nerves in the spinal cord transmit messages back and forth from the extremities and torso to the brain. Each cushioning disc is comprised of two layers, a tough but flexible outer layer like a strong rubber band, and a soft, cushiony inner layer like a spongy cushion. The two most common injuries people experience in this part of the human skeletal system are bulging or herniated discs. Both conditions involve problems with the layers of the cushioning disc and result in painful conditions that may limit the range of motion and mobility.

What is a Bulging Disc?

When age and wear and tear cause a disc to dry out or “deflate” it acts similar to a tire that’s low on air. The outer layer of the disc begins to sag and bulge outward on one side. In a bulging disc, only the disc’s outer layer is involved in the problem. Around 90% of bulging discs occur in the lower back, but this problem also sometimes develops between the vertebrae in the neck. When a disc in the neck bulges outward it’s called a cervical bulging disc. A bulging back disc is a lumbar bulging disc. Lumbar bulging discs sometimes place pressure on the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica symptoms like pain, numbness, or tingling in the buttocks and legs.

Bulging discs typically affect multiple discs in the same region of the back or neck in a degenerative condition. Pain and discomfort may worsen over time if not treated with steroids and anti-inflammatory medications.

What is a Herniated Disc?

Herniated discs may develop slowly, stemming from a bulging disc, or they can occur suddenly from an accident such as a car accident, a work accident, a fall, or a blow to the back. A herniated disc is one that develops a hole or tear in the tough elastic-like outer coating of the disc, allowing the spongy, or gel-like center to leak or burst outward into the spinal canal. Herniated discs are also known as ruptured discs or slipped discs.

With a herniated disc, the inner layer of the disc protrudes outward toward the nerves in the back. Because the tissue pushes further outward with a ruptured disc compared to a bulging disc, the inner disc component may touch the sensitive nerves in the spinal canal and cause significant pain and inflammation of the nerve roots. In some cases, fragments of the torn outer layer may separate from the disc and drift or lodge into the spinal canal.

When to See a Doctor

If you experience significant pain that doesn’t ease after several days of traditional remedies such as over-the-counter medications, heat application, and/or massage, you should see your doctor. Imaging tests can determine if you have a bulging or herniated disc.