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What's the Difference Between a Herniated Disc and a Bulging Disc?

The discomfort that accompanies a problematic disc is one that you’ll not soon forget. Whether the problem is in your neck or your lower back, the pain can radiate down into your arms or legs, depending upon the location of the troublesome disc, making movement difficult.

At Texas Spine Consultants, Dr. Michael Ware Hennessey and our team specialize in vertebral disc issues. Our first order of business is to identify the nature of the problem, more specifically, whether your disc has herniated or whether it’s bulging.

To give you a better idea about what we’re up against, here’s a look at the difference between a herniated disc and a bulging disc.

Spinal anatomy 101

At the foundation of your body lies your spine, which is made up of 33 vertebrae that are stacked neatly, one atop the other. These vertebrae are separated by 23 discs that separate your vertebrae to provide crucial cushioning and support, allowing you to move with relative ease and comfort. 

Each of your discs features a tough outer layer called the annulus fibrosus, which is made up of strong collagen fibers. This protective outer layer houses a jelly-like substance on the inside, which is what supplies the shock absorption between your vertebrae.

The most active discs are located in your lower back and in your neck, the two areas of your spine that enjoy the most movement. And it’s in these two areas where we see the most disc problems.

A bulging disc

If you have a bulging disc, this means that a portion of the outer layer is squeezing out from between your vertebrae, which can irritate the sensitive nerve roots in the area.

A bulging disc is often the result of simple wear-and-tear and age — over time, your discs wear down and lose moisture, causing them to lose their shape and flatten out. This usually occurs as a result of degenerative disc disease, which affects one-third of people in the United States between the ages of 40 and 59 (and the numbers only grow larger in higher age groups).

If the bulge is progressive, you may not feel any symptoms at first. If the outer layer begins to press against a nerve, however, you will likely feel both local and radiating symptoms that extend down your arms if the disc is in your neck or down your buttocks and legs if the problem is located in your lower back.

A herniated disc

A herniated disc means that the outer layer of the disc has ruptured, allowing some of the jelly-like interior to seep out. As this substance leaks out past your vertebrae, it can compress a nerve (or nerves) in your spinal canal or cause inflammation in one of your nerve roots.

A herniated disc is more apt to lead to pain and discomfort since the breach protrudes further into your spinal canal.

The road to a herniated disc is much the same as that of a bulging disc — in most cases, wear-and-tear is to blame for the problem.

Treating your problematic discs

While we’ve taken the time to highlight the difference between a herniated and bulging disc, our treatments for each are much the same.

In most cases, we can remedy these disc problems through:

In rare cases, we may recommend surgery if you don’t respond to conservative treatments. In these cases, Dr. Hennessey can remove the piece of your disc that’s causing the problem or remove the problematic disc entirely using a minimally invasive technique called XLIF® lateral lumbar interbody fusion.

If you suspect that your back or neck pain may be related to a problem in one of your discs, please contact one of our offices in Addison or Plano, Texas, so we can get you on the road to relief.

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