Herniated Disc vs. Bulging Disc

The terms “herniated disc” and “bulging disc” sometimes are used interchangeably, but there are differences between the two conditions. Before those differences are explained, it might be helpful to understand their similarities.

Both conditions affect the intervertebral disc, a spongy, oval-shaped “shock absorber” that is located between vertebrae. Discs cushion the vertebrae, contribute to flexibility and help to protect the spinal cord. Discs are composed of a gel-like center (the nucleus pulposus) and a tough, fibrous outer layer (the annulus fibrosus). A herniated disc or bulging disc often is referred to colloquially as a slipped disc and a ruptured disc. No matter what you call them, these conditions can lead to nerve root irritation or impingement, which can cause traveling pain, numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and other disabling symptoms.

In addition to producing similar symptoms, herniated discs and bulging discs have similar causes. Poor posture, a spinal injury, repetitive spinal strain or the normal wear and tear of age can lead to either condition. What, then, are the differences?

  • A bulging disc is “contained.” This means no tear or rupture is present within the outer layer of the disc. A small “bubble” protrudes into the spinal canal. No portion of the nucleus pulposus has leaked out of the disc.
  • A herniated disc is “non-contained,” which means a tear or rupture is present. A portion of the gel-like nucleus pulposus has leaked into the spinal canal. A herniated disc might have begun as a bulging disc, but created so much pressure on the outer wall of the disc that a rupture occurred.

Not every herniated or bulging disc creates painful symptoms. Those that do generally can be managed through conservative treatment, including exercise, physical therapy and pain medicine. Occasionally, after weeks or months of ineffective conservative treatment, a physician might present surgery as an option.

Laser Spine Institute offers an alternative to traditional surgery, which has a long recovery time. The surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform minimally invasive, outpatient procedures using innovative techniques. Contact Laser Spine Institute to learn more.

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