Bulging vs. Herniated Discs– Key Differences And How To Treat Them

Bulging vs. Herniated Discs– Key Differences And How To Treat Them

Do you have back pain, that seems to shoot up and down your spine? Perhaps you also have some numbness or tingling in your back that can shoot down into your glutes or even up into your neck and shoulders. You may even feel some muscle weakness in your arms or legs from time to time. In any of these cases, these sensations can be disconcerting. 

While back pain, in general, is one of the most common complaints worldwide, the symptoms listed above point to a very specific kind of issue: disc injuries. These injuries can range in severity, but when left untreated, can greatly disrupt your quality of life.  

If you think you may have a disc injury, this article is for you. In particular, we’re getting into what makes your discs such critical components of a healthy back, the differences between disc injuries, and what your treatment options really are. Let’s get started.

What Is A Disc?

First, let’s break down what exactly a disc is. The vertebrae that stack to make up our spine all have small pads between them, called discs. They serve as little shock absorbers to help protect our spine during day-to-day and dynamic movement. Without healthy discs, even basic movements can become uncomfortable and downright painful. 

These vertebrae cushions are made up of a tougher outer cartilage ring and a softer, gel-like center. You can even think of these as a jelly donut– a soft interior that’s protected by an exterior layer. 

Bulging Disc vs. Herniated Disc

As many patients know, injuries to these shock absorbers can bring about a great deal of discomfort; our spines rely on healthy discs to operate pain-free. However, not all disc injuries were created equally– and there are some important differences between a bulging and herniated disc before starting a treatment protocol.  

Bulging Disc

This injury occurs when some of the inner jelly-like contents of the disc begin to push against the outer cartilage. Depending on its placement, this bulge can begin to press on some of the surrounding nerves, causing irritation that may run up your back and even into your neck. 

Depending on the severity, you may not feel that many symptoms from a bulging disc. However, if you suspect that you may have some disc involvement with your discomfort, it’s always better to get checked out by a medical professional, as a bulging disc can often lead to bigger issues down the road.

Herniated Disc

A herniated disc is generally associated with a higher level of pain and discomfort. Remember the jelly donut comparison made earlier? Well, a herniated disc happens when the soft center portion (the jelly) is pushed through the outer cartilage (dough) edge. While it may be a delicious mess in donut form, the human body comparison is layered with nerve interference and discomfort. 

When this herniation happens, the soft, herniated center can begin to push on the various nerve endings that run through your spine, resulting in back, neck, and glute discomfort. If the herniated disc is located more toward your mid or upper back, it’s likely that you’ll feel some referred pain in your neck and shoulders. Alternately, if the injured disc is in your lower back, the nerve sensations are more likely to affect your glutes and legs. Herniated discs are also referred to as “slipped discs” or “ruptured discs” as well.

It’s also important to note that a bulging disc can sometimes be a precursor to a herniated disc, as it has already broken down the integrity of the disc. The takeaway: seek immediate care at the first signs of any disc injury– you could catch a bulging disc early before it progresses into a more painful herniated disc. 

Disc Degeneration

An unfortunate truth is that as you increase in age, it negatively impacts your disc health. As we get older, our discs become a bit more dehydrated– effectively losing some of the coveted cushion that acts as a protectant for our spine. The cartilage also gets stiffer over time. These shifts in our discs can make it easier for a bulge or herniation to happen without proper preventative measures.

However, this doesn’t mean that your discs are doomed as you get older! Instead, it highlights the importance of taking care of your back and disc health from an early age.

Preventative Care

As with most injuries, taking preventative measures is always the ideal. To help protect your spine against disc injury, pay extra close attention to your posture and form, especially while performing high-load activities. Many disc injuries happen when you’re near the end of a workout, or lifting heavy objects (moving day, anyone?) It makes sense– as you become fatigued, it’s easier for your form to break down.

A good rule of thumb: if you’re noticing your form slipping while lifting heavier weights or objects, take a break until you feel more rested. Take the cue from your body and focus on rest.

Treatment Options

While preventative care is always ideal, we know that life happens and injuries affecting the back and neck can be particularly nerve-wracking to manage. If you’ve been diagnosed with a disc injury, know that surgery is not the immediate answer, as most cases have positive results from conservative care. 

For starters, basic rest can work wonders. If you’re just beginning to notice pain and discomfort, try taking it easy for a few days. In particular, stay away from motions that aggravate your pain, including lifting heavy objects, and any sudden twisting motions.

Many also experience relief from using ice around the area to help decrease inflammation, as well as the application of some analgesic cream. 

The Role Of Chiropractic In Disc Health

Another great treatment option to help with overall disc health is consistent chiropractic care. Misalignments in the spine happen as part of everyday life, yet these seemingly small misalignments can actually make your back and neck more susceptible to disc injury. Chiropractic can help by correcting these misalignments, thus improving the integrity of your spine, and effectively allowing it to better protect your back from injury. Through the use of gentle adjustments, chiropractic treatment helps to guide your spine back to a normal and healthy placement.

Gently correcting these misalignments can help to both prevent disc injuries and promote better recovery, should a bulging or herniated disc occur. Consistent chiropractic care gives your body more support which becomes especially important as you age. Take care of your body now, and increase your quality of life over the long-term.

Don’t put back and disc health on the backburner. Schedule an appointment online or call (714) 777-3200. 

This article is for informational purposes only, and is not a substitute for in-person advice or care from a medical professional.