Despite the terms “bulging disc” and “herniated disc” often being used interchangeably, there are differences. The pain felt from either condition can be similar, as is the case with treatment options and symptoms. However, knowing the difference can help patients better understand the source of their discomfort.
A bulging disc refers to a disc that’s bulging out of its normal space between vertebrae. However, the disc itself does not rupture, which is why it’s sometimes referred to as a “slipped” disc. Consequently, a bulging disc tends to affect the entire disc rather than only a small portion of the disc.
A herniated disc is caused by a crack in the disc’s outer layer (annulus). The soft material contained within the disc comes out of the crack. Disc herniation often affects only a small portion of the entire disc rather than the entire disc. Genetics may also play a role in disc herniation, with some people more susceptible to the condition than others.
Bulging and herniated discs can both be caused by normal wear and tear that occurs with age. It’s this wear and tear that may cause a disc to slip out of place. Overexertion of muscles through improper lifting or twisting of the back can cause a herniated disc. A hard blow to the back may also cause a disc to slip or rupture, although this is rare.
Symptoms of bulging and herniated discs often overlap. It’s only with an MRI, CT scan, or x-ray that a diagnosis of either a bulging or herniated disc can be made. Overlapping symptoms may include:
• Issues with bowel or bladder function
• Numbness or tingling if the disc presses on adjacent nerves
• Radiating pain in the arms or legs
Bulging discs are more common than herniated, or ruptured, discs, with herniated discs typically causing more pain. As with any type of back pain, though, discomfort levels can vary from person to person, with some people requiring nothing more than occasional over-the-counter pain medication and a little rest while other patients may need back surgery for meaningful relief.
If you’re considering back surgery as a last resort, turn to The Spine Institute Center for Spinal Restoration. Our board-certified spine surgeons can help you achieve meaningful relief and start you down a path to a pain-free life. Call (310) 828-7757 and request an in-person consultation.