Bulging Disc vs. a Herniated Disc: What’s the Difference?

Spinal discs are the roundish cushions of rubbery material between your vertebral bones. The natural aging process or acute injury can force these discs to shift or break, causing a disc to become a source of pain and limit your mobility.

Bulging discs and herniated discs are two of the most common causes of back pain. They’re similar conditions, and are sometimes called slipped discs or protruding discs. But there are some significant differences.

If you’re wondering what the difference between bulging discs and herniated discs really is, find out right here. Aron Rovner, MD, and our team at New York Spine and Sports Surgery are experts in diagnosing and treating spinal disc disorders to relieve pain and help you get back to enjoying your life.

Anatomy of spinal discs

Your spine contains 23 round, flat spinal discs located between your vertebral bones. Spinal discs hold the vertebrae together, and they’re there to cushion the bones and absorb shock as you move.

The discs have a hard, slick covering on the outside called the annulus fibrosus. It protects softer gel-like material called the nucleus pulposus on the inside.

Spinal discs are susceptible to injury, particularly as you get older. Discs dehydrate as you age, which makes them stiffer and less able to absorb shock. This condition, known as disc degeneration, is a common source of back pain.

When discs get damaged, they can press against the nerves in the spinal column. This is the cause of pain associated with bulging and herniated discs.

Symptoms of a bulging disc

A bulging disc occurs when the annulus fibrosus, the outer layer of the disc, bulges out. Sometimes the bulge can be even around the entire perimeter of the spinal disc. In other cases, the bulge might be on just one side of the disc.

With a bulging discs, the inner layer isn’t affected. Aging and disc degeneration are common risk factors for bulging discs. When the cartilage in the disc becomes dehydrated over time, it can’t absorb shock as well as it did when you were younger. 

Because the disc’s nucleus isn’t impacted with a bulging disc, this condition may not cause pain. However, pain can develop if the bulge presses against nerves, causing a pinched nerve in your spine.

Symptoms of a herniated disc

A herniated disc develops when the annulus fibrosus cracks and the nucleus begins to leak out of the disc. While herniated discs are often called slipped or ruptured discs, it doesn’t mean the entire disc is affected. Only the area of the disc that has the crack is damaged. 

Herniated discs are more likely to cause pain than bulging discs, but it’s possible to have a herniated disc without pain.

The nucleus generally protrudes further out with a herniated disc, and it’s more likely to compress nerves in the spine. A herniated disc often causes pain that starts at the spine and radiates to the arm or down one side of the buttocks into the leg. It may also cause pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the arm or leg.

Who gets herniated or bulging discs?

Anyone can suffer a disc disorder that leads to pain or reduced mobility, but some risk factors might put you at increased risk. Being overweight, smoking  or tobacco use, or having a physically-demanding job can make back problems more likely. Some people have a genetic predisposition for herniated discs.

If you’re experiencing back pain, Dr. Rovner can help. Through a comprehensive physical exam and spinal imaging, he can identify any disc disorders and recommend the right treatment plan for you.

Request an appointment online or call one of our convenient locations in Garden City, New York, or Fair Lawn, New Jersey.

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