It’s easy to confuse a herniated disc and a bulging disc. Sometimes people use them interchangeably. But they don’t mean the same thing. A bulging disc can become a herniated disc. However, a disc herniation isn’t always the result of a bulging disc. Clear as mud, right?
The place to start is with an overview of the spinal anatomy. The spinal column forms the body’s main support structure and it contains five regions beginning with the top and working down:
- Lumbar region
The bones in the spine are known as vertebrae. Each region has multiple vertebrae. Between the vertebrae is a disc composed of an inner layer of soft cartilage known as the nucleus pulposus. The nucleus surrounded by a layer of tough cartilage called the disc annulus.
Think of a disc like a jelly donut. The jelly is the nucleus pulposus and the donut is the disc annulus. Discs cushion the bones and allow the spine to twist and bend.
What Is a Bulging Disc?
As the discs age, they experience wear and tear. They can get dehydrated and that causes their cartilage to stiffen. It’s almost as if someone pressed on the disc causing its insides to bulge out. What happens when you squeeze a jelly donut? The jelly comes out.
Think of Play-Doh that you’ve rolled into a ball. Open your hand and push down on the ball. Initially, the ball was smaller than your hand. After pressing down, the clay flattens while its circumference grew wider. It could be as big or bigger than the palm of your hand.
That’s what happens with discs dry up and lose their springiness. They flatten and expand, which causes the disc to bulge outside of its space. Despite the protrusion, the disc’s outer layer remains intact. Still, the bulging disc can compress a nerve root and cause pain. This is also known as disc prolapse.
What Is a Herniated Disc?
With a herniated disc, the disc’s jelly either breaks or ruptures the outer layer of the disc known as the annulus. This is the biggest difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc. In a bulging disc, the inner material aka the jelly is contained. The jelly is not contained in a herniated disc.
The spinal canal has very little space. Because of this, the jelly spills out into the space and can compress the nerve root, spinal cord, or the neural foramen. A herniated disc is also known as a slipped or ruptured disc.
One option to treat a disc herniation is a minimally invasive spine procedure known as a microdiscectomy. It’s not the only option. If you’re having neck or back pain, it may be time to see a back and spine doctor. And the doctor will review your case and propose the best options.
Have a question? Please contact us or call 214-823-2052. We have two conveniently located offices in Addison and Dallas serving patients in Dallas, Addison, Plano, Frisco, Garland, and other cities in the DFW metroplex.