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Bulging Disc vs. Herniated Disc: What's the Difference?

By HERWriter
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Some people develop a bulging disc or herniated disc in their neck or back. Injury, aging and poor lifestyle choices may increase the risk for a disc problem. Bulging discs are more common than herniated discs and usually cause no pain.

Discs are composed of a tough outer layer of cartilage that surrounds a softer material in the center. Discs are the soft, gelatinous material that cushions the vertebrae of the spine. It may help to think of them as miniature jelly doughnuts between your vertebrae.

A bulging disc simply extends outside the space it should normally occupy. The bulge typically affects a large portion of the disc, so it may look a little like a hamburger that's too big for its bun. Usually bulging is considered part of the normal aging process of the disc and is therefore common to see on a magnetic resonance image (MRI).

In the majority of patients who experience a bulging disc, there is no pain unless the disc becomes herniated or protrudes into a nerve. Bulging disc pain which radiates to the shoulders and arms generally indicates that a nerve in the neck may be pinched or pushed upon. In the lower back, pain may sometimes radiate to the legs.

A bulging disc is different from a herniated disc in that a bulging disc typically occurs gradually over time rather than suddenly. A bulging disc is one in which the tough outer layers of the disc simply bulge into the spinal canal. A bulging disc could be compared to a volcano prior to eruption and may be a precursor to herniation. The disc may protrude into the spinal canal without breaking open.

A herniated disc is often the result of an injury or trauma to the spine. It results when a crack in the tough outer layer of cartilage allows some of the softer material inside to protrude out of the disc. Herniated discs are also called ruptured discs or slipped discs.

Herniated disc pain occurs when the disc's gel-like nucleus (which contains a chemical) irritates the nerves causing them to swell. After the chemical agent has done its job, the remnants of the chemical remain and continue to press on the irritated and swollen nerves. To complicate matters, sometimes fragments from the anulus (tire-like outer disc wall) break away from the parent disc and drift into the spinal canal. These free fragments may travel in the spinal canal.

Bulging discs are more common, while herniated discs are more likely to cause pain. But many people have bulging discs or herniated discs that cause no pain whatsoever.

In many cases, a bulging disc may be diagnosed as a condition secondary to another problem. Because a bulging disc does not always cause pain, it may only be found during a routine or diagnostic imaging test such as MRI. Typically, a bulging disc is not a problem unless it begins to cause pain, becomes herniated or ruptures.

Treatment for a bulging disc or even a herniated disc is relatively conservative in most cases. Rest and lifting restrictions are common and a doctor may recommend a combination of heat/ice therapy and anti-inflammatory medications or cortisone injections. Medication may be prescribed to deal with any associated pain.

A physical examination by your doctor will help determine where your discomfort may be coming from and whether the problem arose gradually or suddenly. In most cases, conservative treatment relieves the problem. Back surgery, though not as common, can relieve severe pain caused by compression on the nerves from a bulging disc that becomes herniated.


MC Ortega is the former publicist for the late Walter Payton, Coca-Cola and Dunkin’ Donuts. Ortega is a senior communications and messaging executive specializing in media relations, social media, program development and crisis communications. Also, Ortega is an avid traveler and international shopper. Ortega resides with her partner, Craig, dog, Fionne and extensive shoe collection. Ortega also enjoys jewelry design/production and flamenco dancing.

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.