What’s The Difference Between a Bulging Disc and a Herniated Disc?

Dec 30, 2021Chiropractic, Low Back Pain


It is necessary to possess a basic understanding of the disc (sometimes referred to as a disk) in the human body, and how it functions before you can delve into the difference between a bulging and herniated disc. If you have back pain, it probably does not matter whether your disc is bulging or herniated. However, there is a significant difference that impacts lifestyle and treatment.

Your spine contains numerous bones that extend from your neck through your upper and middle back and end in your lower back. These bones protect your spinal cord which contains your nerves that produce signals which allow you to move and feel.

There is a disc between each bone. It functions as a shock absorber. The disc allows you to move, bend, stand up, and in general perform the functions of life. The discs are designed to give flexibility.

When the discs start to lose their ability to work, then pain and discomfort ensue. That is when the difference between a bulging and herniated disc comes into play.


A disc is composed of two parts. In simple terms, there is the interior which contains a substance described as similar to jelly. The medical term is nucleus pulposus. It is mostly water with some collagen fibers. The interior is elastic which gives the disc the ability to absorb shocks. The outside part of the disc is a hardened material that keeps the inside part intact. Known as the annulus fiber, it contains up to 15 fiber layers for protection.

Both parts are necessary for the disc to perform its given task. They must work in harmony. The disc needs to keep its original shape, and the interior substance needs to stay inside the disc.

A bulging disc describes a situation where the disc is intact, but the shape has changed. Think of it as an object that has lost its shape. It now protrudes into the spinal column with the potential of causing pain and discomfort.

A herniated disc, on the other hand, means there is a break in the outer cover. Part of the interior “jelly” has come out. That substance then impacts the spinal cord. That causes pain.


  • Age
  • Deterioration
  • Strain
  • Posture
  • Obesity
  • Genetics

Aging is the primary cause of disc disease, whether bulging or herniated. It is commonly called degenerative disc disease. There is, of course, no known way to avoid the aging process. Your body parts begin to wear out through use even though you have done your best to protect them.

Whether you call it aging or deterioration, your discs are just not the same at age 60 as they were at age 20. This can lead to bulging and/or herniation.

Strain simply means you learn to be careful when lifting heavy objects. You will know when you have damaged a disc by the sharp pain in your back. Of course, by then it will be too late. Learn to lift with your legs, not your back. Your legs are much stronger and can handle heavier loads without risking damage to a disc.

If you have a job that requires heavy lifting, make sure you ask for and receive devices and equipment to minimize the risk. A bulging or herniated disc is often a work-related injury. If you do experience pain on the job, seek medical treatment to document your injury.

Poor posture impacts discs. Make a habit of standing up straight. Anytime you slump or otherwise put your spine and discs in awkward positions, you are contributing to the eventual bulging of a disc or maybe more than one. Standing up straight is more than just looking good. It is part of a plan to care for your discs.

Obesity puts extra strain on your back and discs. It is akin to wearing a weighted belt. If you are 30 pounds overweight, imagine strapping a weight of 30 pounds around your body each day. You get the point. Your body was not designed to carry the extra pounds. Your discs will absorb the weight and eventually bulge or herniate under the pressure of the extra pounds.

Another cause of bulging and herniated discs is genetics. You cannot control your genetics or even know if you are genetically predisposed to disc problems. You should strive to mitigate all the other causes in the event genetics are not on your side.


There are numerous symptoms that indicate either a bulging or herniated disc. This link provides a good overview of the problem along with a list of physical symptoms.

Back pain is the basic clue to a problem. It probably gets worse when you move or stand for a long time. The muscles in your back may also experience spasms.

Discs that are not functioning properly cause signals to be sent down your legs. Your feet will also be impacted. Numbness will occur in addition to the pain. If the disc problem is in your neck, then your arms will exhibit the same symptoms as your legs.

You may have heard the term sciatica. It describes the pain that moves along your leg and into your foot.

One difference is the severity or onset of the pain. A bulging disc causes continuous pain while the disc that suddenly herniates will create intense pain. That is a sure sign you need medical treatment.

All of these physical symptoms could be the result of some other condition. Only a medical provider can properly diagnose a bulging or herniated disc.


Prior to any testing, your physical history will be taken. Your medical provider will perform a physical exam to determine pain, reflexes, and in general, evaluate your spine.

The initial test would be an x-ray. This is performed to rule out other causes of your back discomfort. Once that happens, further advanced testing is necessary.

A CT scan is the next step. It will be followed up by magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests will reveal the scope of the damage and whether or not the disc or discs are bulging or herniated. It may also be necessary to inject dye to allow further definition to the images.


  • Medicine
  • Steroids’
  • Chiropractic Care
  • Surgery

The first treatment of ailing discs is some type of medicine. There are numerous pills your physician can prescribe to deal with the pain. Another option in this regard is steroids. They provide relief from the pain and discomfort. However, neither of these truly treat the problem

Your third and possibly best option is to be treated by a chiropractor. Chiropractic care physicians treat the symptoms rather than mask them. Give us a call and book an appointment to best decide how to treat your bulging or herniated disc.

The final option for most medical problems is surgery. A consultation with a surgeon would involve a discussion of your discomfort, examination of all tests, and an explanation of the risks and benefits of surgery. You will then decide if surgery is worth the risks. In general, people who choose surgery have disc issues that cannot be handled by medicine and physical therapy.

The difference between a bulging and herniated disc is real and can be documented by imaging tests. As mentioned earlier, you may not care about the difference. You just relief from the pain and the inability to live life as you choose. The differences do lead to different lifestyle adjustments and treatments.

Make sure you understand which condition you have and how to deal with the problem. You need your discs to function properly so you can enjoy life.

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