54% of Americans have had back or neck pain for at least five years. If you’re dealing with back pain, you’re not alone.
You may be wondering if you have a herniated disc or a bulging disc and whether there is any difference between them. If so, this post is for you. Read on to learn everything you need to know about a bulging disc vs herniated disc.
Bulging Disc vs Herniated Disc: What’s the Difference?
Before you look for treatment, it’s a good idea to become educated about your back pain. While it may seem like the terms ‘bulging disc’ and ‘herniated disc’ are used interchangeably, they are actually very different.
What is a Bulging Disc?
A bulging disc is sometimes called a disc protrusion. Usually, someone who has a bulging disc won’t have any symptoms. However, if the disc is compressing on the spinal cord or an adjacent nerve, this can cause disability and discomfort.
As we get older, the outer part of our discs naturally weaken. This fibrous portion can bulge when pressure from the central part of the disc stretches to the outer rim.
Since bulging discs don’t always have symptoms, many people may have a bulging disc without knowing it. However, once the disc begins pinching a nerve, they’ll feel pain traveling to the feet, legs, butt, and hips. If the disc is bulging in the cervical spine, you may feel pain radiating from the neck down your arm to your fingers.
Most of the time, bulging discs are found in the lumbar area (lower back). This will usually be between L4 and L5 of your lumbar vertebrae and between L5 and S1. Your sciatic nerve runs along here, so if the bulging disc crowds one of the six nerves along your spine, you can expect to feel sciatic pain. This can extend down your leg and all the way to your foot.
What is a Herniated Disc?
A herniated disc is what will typically happen if a bulging disc is not treated appropriately.
A bulging disc means that pressure is causing the fibrous outer part of your disc to bulge. But a herniated disc is when this outer layer has a hole or is so thin that the inner portion extrudes into the spinal canal.
One way to think of this is by picturing your favorite type of filled donut. If you put pressure on the donut, you’ll see it flatten slightly and the fluid may move towards the sides. But a herniated disc is when this “donut” ruptures and some of the filling begins leaking out.
Herniated discs are much more likely to be painful since they’ll usually protrude further, making it more likely to irritate your nerves.
Sometimes, herniated discs are also called slipped discs. While you’re more at risk of a herniated disc as you age, certain motions may cause a herniated disc- particularly if it’s already bulging. People who have a sedentary lifestyle, weak muscles, and/or are overweight are also more likely to develop a herniated disc.
The Symptoms of Bulging or Herniated Discs
Keep in mind that if you don’t have any pressure on a nerve from a bulging or herniated disc, you may not even be aware that you have a problem.
Here are some of the symptoms of bulging or herniated discs:
- Burning sensations
- Tingling and numbness
- Soreness and stiffness
- Muscle spasms
- Radiating pain
- General discomfort
- Loss of range of motion
- And more
You’re much more likely to have symptoms from a herniated disc as a bulging disc is more likely to stay contained in one area.
Diagnosing Disc Problems
If you think you may have a bulging or herniated disc, it’s best to get it checked out. Your doctor will check your back for any pain or discomfort and may ask you to move into various positions or lie flat.
You may need an MRI, which uses radio waves to create an image of your back’s internal structure. This will confirm where your bulging or herniated disc is, and the nerves it is affecting.
Finally, your doctor or specialist may also perform a discogram. This is when you have a special dye injected into your discs. A discogram helps narrow down the source of your disc pain.
Treating a Bulging or Herniated Disc
Once a doctor confirms that you have a bulging disc, they’ll usually recommend a few different measures. Often, a bulging disc will resolve on its own. If it doesn’t, your physician is likely to choose a more aggressive approach so any symptoms can be addressed.
As soon as you’ve been diagnosed with a bulging disc, you’re likely to try the following treatments:
- Lifestyle changes and weight loss
- Avoiding lifting
- A short rest period
- Ice packs
- Stretching techniques
- Heat therapy
- Targeted exercises from a physical therapist
- Anti-inflammatory medications and pain relievers
- Cortisone (steroid) injections
- Spinal decompression therapy
- Chiropractic treatment
Once you have a herniated disc, many specialists will start with conservative treatment such as physical therapy and medications. If your symptoms don’t improve within six weeks, you may need surgery. This is particularly true if you’re experiencing loss of bowel or bladder control, difficulty walking or standing, or weakness and numbness.
Often, a skilled surgeon will be able to just remove the portion of the disc that’s protruding. Very rarely, an entire disc will need to be removed. In this case, your vertebrae will be fused together to keep your spine stable.
If you think you may have a bulging or herniated disc, now’s the time to get it looked at. By starting treatment early, you have a greater chance of resolving the issue and avoiding surgery.
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