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The Difference Between Herniated & Bulging Discs

You may have heard the terms herniated and bulging discs used interchangeably, but these are two distinct conditions with different causes. In order to understand the differences, you need to know about the structure of the spine.

The spine is made of several bones called vertebrae that are separated by rubbery discs of cartilage. These discs act as shock absorbers. They provide cushioning for the vertebrae and reduce the stress caused by impact. Damage to the discs can cause pain, discomfort, and reduced mobility.

What Is a Herniated Disc?

More commonly known as a “slipped” disc, a herniated disc is a disc that has jellylike center (nucleus) encased in a tougher, rubbery exterior (annulus). A herniated disc occurs when some of the nucleus pushes out through a tear in the annulus and agitate the surrounding nerve roots. Herniated discs can cause back pain and radiating pain in the neck, arms, legs, and feet.

Herniated discs are a common cause of back pain and usually aren’t serious – in some cases, they don’t even cause symptoms. If there is no nerve damage from the herniated disc, symptoms can be managed with medication, physical therapy, and steroid injections. The pain should go away within 6 to 12 weeks.

In rare cases, a severely herniated disc requires surgical treatment. Minimally invasive surgery can alleviate pain by relieving pressure on the nerves.

What Is a Bulging Disc?

Discs naturally deteriorate over time. Sometimes, discs degenerate to a point where the outer layer of the disc bulges out and exerts pressure on the nerves. This can cause pain in the back, legs, or thighs. Unlike herniated discs, it’s not unusual for several bulging discs to occur at once. It’s a progressive condition that gets worse over time as the discs continue to deteriorate.

There are several treatment options for bulging discs. Medication and steroid injections can help manage pain in the short-term, while physical therapy focuses on long-term recovery. Sometimes, bulging discs are caused by underlying conditions like lumbar stenosis. In these cases, the best treatment may be surgery to fix the primary condition.

At Comprehensive Spine Institute, we provide comprehensive treatment for both bulging and herniated discs. Contact us today for an appointment.