Bulging Discs Versus Herniated Discs: Understanding the Difference

Herniated Disc In Spine

The spinal column is made up of vertebral bones, joints, and 26 discs which help support painless movement of the spine. Each disc functions as protective cartilage (called spinal discs) between each vertebra. These discs help cushion the vertebral bones and allow movement in all directions. As individuals age, however, discs can deteriorate, change shape, bulge outside of the spinal column alignment, and may even tear or herniate.

On physical examination, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a herniated disc or a bulging disc. Experts in spine conditions, such as a neurosurgeon, orthopedic spine surgeon or pain management doctor can distinguish one from the other by evaluating a patient’s symptoms and confirming their diagnosis with an MRI of the suspected area of the spine. Here, the team at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics provides a brief overview on how to determine a bulging disc from a herniated disc.

Bulging Discs

The cause of bulging discs stems from and injury or regular wear and tear on bones and cartilage. These changes lead to alterations in the shape and density of the spinal discs which can cause them to bulge out of alignment thereby pressing into the spinal cord or surrounding nerve roots. Spinal injury from an automobile accident, sports injury or other trauma can also cause bulging discs to occur at any age.

A person will experience painful symptoms because the bulging discs will be placed out of alignment with the spinal column and begin to rub against nearby nerves or the spinal cord. The symptoms of a bulging disc can vary from person to person, and individuals may feel signs on either one side of the body or both depending on the direction the bulging disc is displaced. Some symptoms of a bulging disc include:

  • Neck and/or lower back pain
  • Stiffness
  • Tingling
  • Leg, arm, or hand numbness
  • Leg, arm or hand weakness
  • Muscle Spasms
  • Sciatic pain

Depending on the location of the bulging disc, surgeons will opt to try non-invasive methods first such as physical therapy. If there is no relief, the patient will be recommended for epidural steroid injections as necessary. If symptoms worsen, patients will be evaluated as to whether they are a surgical candidate.  Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics specializes in both non-invasive and surgical procedures to treat bulging discs.  Common surgical procedures used to resolve just a bulging discs or multiple levels of pathology which may include bulging discs include:

Herniated Discs

Unlike bulging discs, herniated discs come from soft inner cartilage that pushes out of a tear in in the spinal disc. Herniated discs can grow and become large, potentially compressing a nerve root.  A herniated disc can occur at any level of the spine. Most commonly a herniated disc occurs in the lower back or neck. Similar to bulging discs, herniated discs stem from gradual wear and tear during the aging process. However, individuals can also develop a herniated disc from lifting heavy items using improper form to lift. Herniated discs can also arise due to excess body weight that causes strain on the back, as well as smoking or genetics.

Not all bulging discs or herniated discs will experience back pain. If symptoms arise, patients may feel arm or leg pain, numbness or tingling, or muscle weakness.  Similar to a bulging disc, treatment for a herniated disc will consist of non-surgical methods such as physical therapy, medications, perhaps epidural injects if not resolved by physical therapy. However, if symptoms still are not resolved or worsen, the patient may need surgical treatment, including:

Spinal Treatment at Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics

The correct way to distinguish between a bulging or herniated disc is by receiving a formal diagnosis from a medical professional. For individuals experiencing back pain, treatment shouldn’t wait. Visiting a neurosurgeon allows for quicker diagnosis, increases the chances to resolve the condition without surgery, and prevention of further complications. To learn more about bulging and herniated disc treatment in New Jersey, contact Centers for Neurosurgery, Spine & Orthopedics today.

Centers for Neurosurgery Spine & Orthopedics