Bulging Discs vs. Herniated Discs: What Is the Difference?

Inside each of us is a complex skeleton, complete with an intricate spinal structure. Our spine not only bears the responsibility of keeping us upright, but also connects the various areas of our body via its integral part in the central nervous system.

Our spine also sustains immense pressure throughout the day – so much so, that we can be up to two centimeters taller in the morning than we are in the evening, because gravity has been pulling our spine downward throughout the day.

What Are Spinal Discs?

Like little cushions between the bones in our spinal column, spinal discs are nestled carefully between the vertebrae in our spines, acting as shock absorbers and functioning as ligaments while also supporting the nerves.

And while they are strong, they’re not impervious to damage.

Each disc is made up of two main parts: the annulus fibrosus, the tough, circular exterior composed of collagen fibers, and the nucleus pulposus, a network of fibers suspended in a gelatinous inner core.

These discs are mostly made of water – 80 percent to be exact. So as our levels of hydration naturally decline as we get older, the discs can become brittle and don’t function as well as they once did. When faced with impact, or simply everyday activities, disc degeneration can cause a lot of pain.

Spinal Disc Disorders

Disc disorders can either be “contained” or “non-contained.”

Bulging Discs

A bulging disc is a disc that is still contained, in that its soft inner core is still intact and only its outer layer has begun to bulge. The condition has been described as being like a volcano that hasn’t yet erupted. It will most likely erupt, it’s just a matter of when.

Some telltale signs of a bulging disc are pain, numbness, weakness, muscle spasms, or a tingling feeling in the arms or legs. However, more often than not, this condition doesn’t cause any pain at all. Among adults without current or previous back pain, 33 percent have significant disc abnormality.

Herniated Discs

Without proper treatment, a bulging disc can lead to a herniated disc – which is a more dire condition in which the inner gel nucleus of the disc ruptures through its outer shell, ultimately causing nerve pain and inflammation.

Herniation typically occurs in the lumbar spine (lower back) or the cervical spine (neck region), but it can happen anywhere along the spinal column.

How Are Spinal Disc Problems Diagnosed?

As far as diagnostics go, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is especially effective at revealing the location of bulging or herniated discs, even when they may not present any outward symptoms.

Once your physician determines that there’s a problem, there are several ways you can prevent it from advancing.

How Can Bulging or Herniated Discs Be Treated?

If action is taken early, you can most likely expect relief utilizing a comprehensive approach to care. Prescription medications (such as cortisone injections), muscle relaxers, over-the-counter pain relievers, and a strategic exercise plan guided by a physical therapist can all be beneficial.

You may also consider at-home lifestyle modifications including heat, ice, rest, and a diet of mild foods to help mitigate your pain.

If your pain isn’t reduced by any of these non-invasive methods, your physician will consider surgical modes of treatment.

Who Can Help with My Back Problems?

The highly trained physicians and surgeons at OrthoUnited have experience diagnosing and treating a wide variety of musculoskeletal disorders ranging from sports-related injuries to spinal trauma.

With state-of-the-art MRI technology and an advanced surgical center, their facility houses everything necessary for complete care. For more information about disc degeneration and repair, or to schedule an appointment, call (844) 469-2663 or fill out our online appointment request form today.