What’s The Difference Between a Disc Bulge and Disc Herniation?

What’s The Difference Between a Disc Bulge and Disc Herniation?

Composed of an outer layer of tough cartilage surrounding a softer jelly-like cartilage discs act as cushions between the vertebrae in your spine. Some people develop a herniated or bulging disc in their neck or back. Injury, aging, and poor lifestyle choices may increase the risk for a disc problem.

So what’s the actual difference between the two?

In this instance, I think it’s probably easy to understand the explanation if you can see it on a diagram. The following picture highlights the difference between a bulging and herniated discs described below.


Disc Bulge

The top to vertebrae in the diagram highlight a bulging disc (disc protrusion) where the inner contents of the disc (nucleus pulposus) puts pressure against a weak spot on the tough outer fibrous layer (annulus fibrosus) causing the disc to ‘bulge’ out. Note that the bulging disc has not broken open; it has remained intact except a small bubble pops out attached to the disc.

Disc Herniation

If you now look at the bottom two vertebra in the diagram you will see the result of a disc herniation. In this case the tough outer fibrous layers of the vertebral disc has an actual tear. This crack in the tough outer layer of cartilage allows some of the softer inner cartilage (annulus fibrosis) to protrude out of the disc. When a disc herniates the contents spread out into the same space that occupies the spinal cord and spinal nerves. If this protrusion presses against the adjacent nerves your likely going to experience symptoms including including severe pain, numbness, tingling, burning, and possibly muscular weakness.

Disc herniations tend to be more painful that bulges due to the inner jelly-like content, not normally located outside of the disc, being detected as a foreign substance by the nervous system causing a cascade of inflammatory responses.

Disc injuries, whether it’s a bulge or herniation, can be caused by a range of factors from sports, lifting and rotating under a heavy load or simply age related degeneration. Either way, they need to be properly diagnosed and managed by a competent chiropractor or physio.