Learn the Difference Between Bulging and Herniated Discs

Herniated and bulging discs are not part of a person’s normal anatomic structure, but they are often seen in many members of the population, especially in older adults who are experiencing the effects of degenerative disc disease. The conditions can be caused by many different reasons, and some patients will display symptoms while other people are unaware that a bulge or herniation has occurred.

What do Discs Do?

An intervertebral disc is comprised of a fibrous outer coating, or annulus, with a firm gel center. The discs act as shock absorbers between the vertebrae and provide a supportive structure that allows for movement and proper alignment within the spinal column.

Bulging Discs

A common misconception is that bulging and herniated discs describe the same ailment. In fact, a bulging disc is a condition where the outer portion of the structure pushes out of the normal line of the vertebral column. Bulging discs frequently develop during the aging process as the bones of the vertebrae shift into new positions. Many people with bulging discs are asymptomatic and unaware of the condition until it shows up on an unrelated x-ray image.

Treatment is usually not necessary for bulging discs unless they are causing pressure on other structures in the spinal column. People who are experiencing pain can often find relief with conservative spine therapies and over-the-counter pain medications. It is not uncommon for the symptoms to go away on their own over time.

Herniated Discs

When the annulus is broken and the contents of the disc are able to spill out into the spinal canal, a herniated disc has occurred. They are usually caused by a traumatic event that results in a sudden increase in pressure in the vertebral column. Herniated discs result in sudden pain and can happen when a person falls and lands in a way that jolts the spinal column upward or by improperly lifting a heavy object. People who have suffered numerous back injuries are more prone to experiencing a herniated disc because the annulus weakens over time. The treatment for a herniated disc can start out the same as for a bulging disc. If symptoms persist or worsen, lumbar decompression surgery may be necessary.

Surgery isn’t the right choice for everyone with a bulging or herniated disc. However, if conservative methods have failed and you’re considering surgery, call (310) 828-7757 and schedule an in-person consultation with Dr. Hyun Bae, Medical Director at The Spine Institute Center for Spinal Restoration.