Explaining the Difference Between Bulging and Herniated Discs

Anyone living with back pain has most likely come across the terms “pinched nerve”, “bulging disc”, and “slipped disc”. These terms are often used interchangeably in reference to herniated discs and bulging discs, and even “herniated” and “bulging” are commonly used interchangeably. To make things more complicated, you might not be able to get a consistent definition for these terms among doctors. While these are all terms that are used to describe spinal disc issues and spine pain, they mean different things, and there’s a difference between bulging and herniated discs. But how can you tell what this difference is? 

The Difference Between Bulging and Herniated Discs, Explained

The difference between bulging and herniated discs can be seen in how much of the spinal disc’s circumference extends out from where it should be. Most people, and even some doctors, believe that the difference between bulging and herniated discs depends on how far the disc extends out. While the wording of this difference sounds similar, these are two very different things.

You can remember the difference between a bulging and herniated disc this way: because a disc bulge is when more than 50% of a disc’s normal outer circumference extends outward, you can think of a bulged disc as a fat man with a large girth extending outward, all the way around his entire belt-line.

In comparison, a disc herniation is when less than 50% of a disc’s normal outer circumference extends outward. Think of a disc herniation as a pregnant woman whose focused area of her baby extends outward only on her front, making up less than 50% of her body’s girth.

difference between bulging and herniated disc

How Are Bulging Discs Caused and How Can They Be Treated?

Bulging discs are commonly believed to be a result of age-related deterioration of spinal discs. This usually happens slowly over time, making a bulging disc is a degenerative condition. Symptoms also usually begin to set in gradually and slowly.

Bulging discs tend to cause pain that’s felt in the buttocks, legs, back, and can even affect your ability to walk. This condition also tends to affect more than one disc in the spine. Over time, bulging discs can also lead to other problems related to disc degeneration, such as lumbar stenosis.

Commonly recommended conservative treatments for bulging discs include: 

  • Anti-inflammatory medication 
  • Steroid injections
  • Exercise programs designed with the help of a physical therapist

If the bulging disc causes severe enough symptoms, lumbar decompression surgery may even be recommended. This generally involves decompressing the spinal canal, but this procedure can vary between patients and their level of stenosis.

What Causes Herniated Discs and How Can They Be Treated?

It’s commonly believed that herniated discs are caused by an acute injury, which means that it happens quickly and suddenly. Because of this, herniated disc pain usually begins abruptly and will only affect one particular nerve root.

The most common belief around herniated disc pain is that the symptoms caused by this issue are due to the herniated disc material physically pinching the nerve root. This is believed to cause radicular pain that radiates to other parts of the body, like leg pain caused by sciatica.

These are the commonly recommended options for herniated disc treatment if you’ve only experienced the symptoms for 6 weeks or fewer and don’t have nerve damage:

  • Anti-inflammatory medications 
  • Physical therapy 
  • Steroid injections

If you fail to see relief from these options, microdiscectomy surgery may be recommended. This surgery alleviates pain by removing the pressure the disc is believed to be placing on the nerve root.

The Discseel® Procedure

However, while these are the most common beliefs around herniated discs, bulging discs, and their causes, this isn’t actually the case in most instances. Annular tears are the underlying cause of most spinal disc issues, including bulging and herniated discs. When annular tears develop in spinal discs, this can not only lead to herniated or bulging discs but also Leaky Disc Syndrome. Leaky Disc Syndrome occurs when the nucleus pulposus, located in the center of your spinal discs, leaks out and irritates surrounding nerve roots.

This leaking is what causes herniated disc and bulging disc pain, rather than the physical pinching of nerve roots, as is commonly believed. Unfortunately, the treatments listed such as anti-inflammatory medications, injections, physical therapy, and even surgery can’t treat annular tears. However, these tears can be treated by being sealed and healed, which is the goal of the Discseel® Procedure.

Apply for the Discseel® Procedure today to find out if you’re a candidate for this life-changing procedure!

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