Herniated vs. bulging discs. What’s the difference? When you have excruciating back pain, it may not matter to you. Pain is pain. But there is a difference. To understand the difference – and similarities – of herniated and bulging discs, it is necessary to understand how the components of your spine stack up.
The Bulging Disc
Our spines have vertebrae that are stacked on top of each other. Between each vertebra are discs comprised of cartilage. Each disc has both an inner and outer layer, kind of like a Tootsie lollipop. The inside is made up of softer cartilage (that would be the soft Tootsie roll center of the Tootsie pop), while the outside is more resilient and tougher to crack (the Tootsie Pop’s hard candy shell). This disc fits perfectly between two vertebrae, which in turn rely on it for padding and support. Over time and with lots of wear, the discs may start to deteriorate and the cartilage will stiffen. Sometimes the vertebrae themselves will start to compress. A bulging disc occurs when the tougher outer layer breaks down, causing that layer to bulge, a little like pressing down on the Tootsie pop and seeing it crack and squish. The Tootsie center remains intact, but that hard candy coating now is compromised.
The Herniated Disc
Herniated discs are also known as ruptured or slipped discs (although they neither rupture nor slip), and are characteristically more painful that a bulging disc. That’s because a herniated disc is more likely to affect the nerve roots within the spinal area. A disc becomes herniated when the crack in the outer layer of cartilage allows some of the softer inner cartilage to jut through, similar to if the compromised Tootsie pop’s outer layer allows some of the soft Tootsie pop center to protrude out the shell. Sometimes, a patient has no idea their disc is herniated until hit (quite literally) hits that nerve. When it does, the pain can be debilitating.
Treating that Painful Disc
The treatment options for a bulging or herniated disc depend largely on the severity of the injury and how long the condition has persisted; as well as the patient’s pain tolerance, age and overall heath and the nature of the symptoms (e.g., discomfort vs. numbness). Before surgery is considered, your doctor likely will recommend non-invasive treatments that may include rest, weight loss, physical therapy, anti-inflammatories, and/or epidural injections. With time and vigilance, your pain will hopefully work its way out. However, if none of these non-invasive courses of action bring relief, you doctor may recommend surgical options followed by physical therapy.
No one wants to live with back pain. At Tarpon Orthopedics, we offer comprehensive, patient-centered care that counts. Our multidisciplinary team focuses on providing sophisticated, yet conservative care to help you overcome debilitating spinal pain. Call 9725961059 for an appointment at Tarpon Orthopedics in West Plano, North Plano, or Addison, Texas today and get “back” on track!