The spine is one of the most important structures in the human body. The allows us to move, breath, feel pain, and enjoy all that life has to offer us. Injuring your spine can lead to serious pain, numbness, and could even affect your ability to walk and bend.

Two of the main causes of pain and numbness in the limbs is a bulging or herniated disc. These injuries are the result of trauma to the spine and can be debilitating.

If you’re suffering from back pain or numbness in your limbs, you may have one of these conditions. The best way to get on the road to recovery is to understand each type of injury, what the symptoms are, and how they are different. 

In this article, we’ll go over the difference between a bulging disc vs a herniated disc and tell you how you should treat each. 

Understanding the Anatomy of the Spine

To understand the difference between a herniated disc and a bulging disc, you need to understand the anatomy of the spine and spinal discs. 

The spine is made of two main things, vertebrae and the discs between them. The vertebrae are the individual bony protrusions in your spine that give it structure. Spinal discs are the spongy, cartilaginous tissue between them that allow it to bend and move. 

The spinal discs are made up of two main sections: the nucleus and the annulus.

When it comes to picturing the anatomy of a spinal disk, picture a jelly donut. The inside of the donut where the thick jelly is located in the nucleus. The nucleus allows the spine to absorb shock and pressure without rupturing or cracking. 

The annulus is the like the doughy, tougher exterior of the donut. It holds the nucleus inside and prevents it from leaking out with its thick walls.

It is flexible but tough. Any extreme trauma or twisting force can rupture the walls or weaken them, which can lead to either a herniated discs or a bulging disc. 

Bulging Discs: What are They?

When the discs between the vertebrae experience enough force, they can be weakened by tearing or cracking. The annulus is flexible but serious force can weaken the walls of it, which allows the nucleus to bulge outwards. This can also be caused by aging and the passage of time, although it happens much more gradually. 

When this occurs, the disc between the vertebrae looks like a burger patty that is too big for the bun, spreading outward and past the edges of the vertebrae. 

This can irritate the nerve endings in the spine, which can cause serious pain and other symptoms. Depending on the location of your bulging disc, you may experience different symptoms. You may experience pain in areas that are nowhere near you back, which can be confusing and frustrating.

If you have a bulging disc in your cervical spine, which is located in your neck, you’ll experience pain in your neck. You may also experience significant pain in your shoulder blades. The pain may also radiate to your shoulders, arms, and fingers. 

If you have a bulging disc in your thoracic spine, you could experience muscle weakness in both of your legs. 

You could also experience increased reflexivity of your legs or spasticity, which can be sudden and painful. If you’re experienced a significant injury, you could even experience bowel changes and paralysis from the waist down. 

How Are They Treated

Bulging discs can be treated using physical therapy, stretching, and pain medications. Many people who experience a bulging disc are able to resolve their pain in a matter of weeks.

Physical therapy is also a great option because it strengthens the muscles around the bulging disc. This fixes the problem but also makes injury less likely in the future. 

Herniated Discs: What Are They

A herniated disc is usually more painful than a bulging disc. A herniated disc occurs when the wall of the annulus ruptures and the nucleus protrudes from the inside of the disc. This can rub against the nerve endings in the spine, which can cause serious pain.

Herniated discs can also cause numbness and weakness in the limbs, which can be confusing and also frightening.

Herniated discs are usually caused by aging, but they can also be caused by lifting heavy loads or even an awkward movement or twist. It can also be caused by significant trauma. For example, many people get a herniated disc from a car accident.

Luckily, most herniated discs can be treated without surgical methods. Treatments include physical therapy, pain medications, and spinal manipulation. Spinal manipulation involves increasing the flexibility and range of motion of the spine, which reduces pressure on the discs and reduces pain. 

Herniated discs can also be treated with surgical options. Usually, surgery involves removing the nerve ending that is under the herniated disc, which can completely resolve the pain in the back and legs. 

Bulging Disc vs Herniated Disc: So What’s the Difference?

While herniated discs and bulging discs are both caused by things like aging and trauma, they are distinctly different. 

The main difference between herniated discs and bulging discs is that herniated discs involve the nucleus leaking out of the annulus. With a bulging disc, the walls of the annulus are not ruptured, just weakened.

Herniated discs are also more likely to produce back pain and pain in the limbs, whereas many patients do not even notice a bulging disc. A herniated disc may also cause sciatica, which is a painful condition in which the muscles of the back, buttocks, and legs spasm. 

See A Doctor For Your Back Pain Today

Now that you know more about a bulging disc vs herniated disc, you can visit the doctor to discuss your back pain and your symptoms. Make sure to contact a doctor immediately if you experience any bowel changes or paralysis. 

If you have any questions about herniated discs or how to treat your back pain, please check out our blog! 

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