Your spine’s discs act as cushions. The outer layer is made up of hard cartilage and the middle is composed of softer cartilage. You can think of them like miniature jelly doughnuts that fit perfectly between your vertebrae.
As we age, discs begin to show signs of wear. discs can become dehydrated and stiffen over time. These changes can cause the outer disc layer to bulge quite evenly around its circumference, making it look a bit like a hamburger with too many buns.
Although a bulging disc may not affect all of its circumference, it can usually affect at least 25% to 50% of its perimeter. The bulging disc affects only the outer layer, though cartilage.
A herniated disc is a condition where the outer cartilage layer cracks allowing some of the inner cartilage to protrude from the disc. Although the entire disc doesn’t rupture or slip, herniated discs can also be called slipped or ruptured discs. The crack only affects a small portion of the disc.
A herniated disc is less likely to cause pain than a bulging one. This is because it protrudes further and is more likely the irritate nerve root. It can cause irritation by either a compression of the nerve, or more often, a herniation that causes painful inflammation of the nerve root.
An imaging test may show that your back pain is not caused by a herniated disc. Many people who have MRI evidence of herniated discs have no back pain.
Symptoms: Herniated disc vs. Bulging Disc
A disc can herniate, causing irritation and/or compression of nearby spinal nerves. Patients with disc pathology report pain and discomfort as a result of this irritation and compression. The severity and frequency of symptoms can vary depending on whether the disc is bulging or herniated.
Both conditions can cause back or leg pain, tingling, weakness, and numbness. However, herniated discs are more likely to experience these symptoms. A bulging disc is more likely to contain the disc material than a herniated one, so there is less chance of nerve irritation or compression.
An MRI is the only way to determine if a disc is bulging or herniated. However, even if a herniated disc is confirmed by MRI, it might not be the source of your pain. Many people have MRI evidence of herniated or bulging discs, but no pain or discomfort. A physical exam and discussions with your doctor are the best ways to determine the condition of your spine.
Causes: Herniated Disc vs. Bulging Disc
There are two types of bulging discs: herniated and bulging. This confusion stems partly from their similar causes. Poor posture, repetitive spinal strain, spinal injuries, or normal wear and tear can all lead to both. Some herniated discs are actually bulging discs that have become worsened over time due to a combination of the above factors. Prevention is crucial. Your doctor will be able to give you advice on how to maintain a healthy spine, even if it is to prevent an existing condition from getting worse.