Similarities and differences between herniated and bulging discs

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 disc that acts as a shock absorber and is located between vertebrae in the spine. 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 outer layer (the annulus fibrosus).

A herniated 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 compression, which can cause traveling pain, numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and other disabling symptoms.

Causes of herniated and bulging discs

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

  • Contained. 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.
  • Not contained. A herniated disc is non-contained, which means a tear or rupture is present. A portion of the gel-like center of the disc known as the 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.

Treatments for herniated and bulging discs

Not every herniated and 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 doctor might recommend seeing if you are a candidate for surgery, such as the minimally invasive spine surgery offered at Laser Spine Institute.

The surgeons at Laser Spine Institute perform our minimally invasive spine surgery in state-of-the-art facilities that are built around patient-centered care. Our procedures use a less than 1-inch incision and muscle-sparing techniques in order to offer a safer and effective alternative to traditional surgery,^ which has a long recovery time.

Laser Spine Institute is the leader in minimally invasive spine surgery and has helped more than 75,000 patients find relief from chronic neck or back pain. Contact our dedicated team today and request a no-cost MRI review* to learn if our outpatient procedures would be effective in relieving your herniated or bulging disc symptoms.

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