Bulging or Herniated Disc

Your spine consists of up to 24 vertebrae with soft discs between them that act as cushions, or shock absorbers. The discs themselves are made up of two parts: a tough outer layer that holds the disc together, and a gel-like interior that helps to soften the impact of walking, lifting, and other everyday activities. What is causing your pain, a bulging or herniated disc? Read more to learn the difference.

Whether the pain comes from an accident, overexertion, or just getting older, discs usually are the cause.  We put a lot of wear and tear on our discs and over time they can become damaged. This can cause a number of problems, but two of the most common are bulging or herniated discs.  And these conditions appear as the leading causes of back pain – especially in the lower back.

Learn more about Herniated Discs

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

When it comes to these two very similar conditions, people can easily get confused.  People throw around terms that may or may not mean the same thing and this causes confusion.  For instance, some people refer to a herniated disc as a “slipped” disc while others coin it a “ruptured” disc/  This even occurs in medical circles, but they refer to the same condition.

However, the terms bulging disc and herniated disc actually mean two different things. So, let’s explore those differences.

Doctors refer to a bulging disc as a swelling in the disc without a tear or rupture in the outer wall. It looks somewhat like a bubble sticking out between the vertebrae. Because the inner part of the disc remains contained, a bulging disc doesn’t usually press on the nerves and many people don’t even realize a problem exists.

Common Symptoms of a Bulging Disc?

  • Pain and stiffness in the neck, upper back, or lower back
  • Numbness, and tingling in the extremities
  • Muscle spasms, weakness

A bulging disc usually occurs as the result of normal wear on the spine and the discs due to things like repetitive strain, routine heavy lifting, and age-related wear – after all, the discs act as buffers between the vertebrae.  

Herniated Disc Definition and Symptoms

A herniated disc, on the other hand, means the soft inner layer has “slipped” or “ruptured” through a crack or tear in the outer layer and into space where the nerves are.

How can you tell if you have a herniated disc? Many people experience symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the neck or back
  • Pain that radiates down the buttocks and legs (sciatica)
  • Weakness
  • Numbness
  • Tingling or burning sensation

You may experience some or all of these symptoms, and most people report these irritations in the arms, legs, and feet.

Herniated Disc locations

Herniated discs can occur in any part of the spine, but they are most commonly found in the cervical (neck) and lumbar (lower back) regions. The specific location of a herniated disc is typically described by the corresponding vertebrae involved. The following are common areas where herniated discs occur:

  • Cervical Herniated Disc: This type of herniation affects the discs in the neck region (cervical spine), which consists of seven vertebrae numbered C1 to C7. Cervical herniated discs can cause symptoms such as neck pain, radiating pain down the arms, weakness, numbness, or tingling in the shoulders, arms, and hands.
  • Thoracic Herniated Disc: Thoracic herniations rarely appear when compared to cervical and lumbar herniations. They occur in the middle portion of the spine known as the thoracic spine, which consists of twelve vertebrae numbered T1 to T12. Symptoms of a thoracic herniated disc may include mid-back pain, chest pain, or radiating pain along the ribs.
  • Lumbar Herniated Disc: Lumbar herniations appear more frequently and occur in the lower back region. The lumbar spine consists of five vertebrae numbered L1 to L5. Symptoms of a lumbar herniated disc can include lower back pain, buttock pain, radiating pain down the legs (sciatica), numbness, tingling, or weakness in the legs and feet.

Pinched Nerves

With a herniated disc, the pain usually happens because of a pinched nerve. When the inner part of the disc gets into space where the nerves are, it presses on the nerve, causing inflammation and irritation that leads to sharp, shooting pains that radiate to other parts of the body, such as from the low back down the leg or from the neck down the arm. Leg pain from a pinched nerve refers to sciatica.

Almost like adding insult to injury, the inner part of the disc also contains a chemical that can further irritate the nerves, and the tearing of the outer layer can cause fragments of tissue to get lodged in the spinal canal – all of which can lead to more inflammation and pain.

Pain can come from the actual disc itself if it dehydrates or wears out to the point that it causes instability in the spine (called degenerative disc disease). Degenerative disc pain is usually chronic, low-level pain around the disc with occasional episodes of more severe pain.

Will a Bulging or Herniated Disc Heal On Its Own?

“Overwhelmingly, disc herniations are treated successfully with conservative modalities. Oftentimes, physical therapy, anti-inflammatory medications, nerve pain medication, a nerve root injection to sort of settle down the nerve inflammation, are all the body needs to help it heal on its own.”

In the majority of cases, both a bulging and herniated disc will heal with only conservative (nonsurgical) treatment, especially if you take things a little easier. That doesn’t mean that patients should become couch potatoes – that can actually make things worse and prolong recovery time. The best way to help reduce swelling and ease the pain is just to do low-intensity activities like walking.

The physicians at Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute usually start by recommending non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to help relieve some of the inflammation and pain. They may also prescribe stronger medications like muscle relaxers to help with muscle spasms or other medications to relieve nerve pain. With more serious disc herniations, an epidural steroid injection might reduce inflammation in the disc and surrounding nerves.

Additionally, physical therapy and specific core exercises are key elements of most treatment plans.  Physical Therapy will help strengthen the muscles that support and protect the spine.

Some other things you can try to help relieve pain from a herniated disc include:

  • Heat/cold therapy (patients should not use heat for the first 2-3 days)
  • Soft tissue massage
  • Stretching exercises like yoga or Pilates
  • Chiropractic

How Long Does It Take to Heal a Herniated Disc?

    The healing time for a herniated disc can vary depending on several factors. While there is no fixed timeline for recovery, it generally takes time and patience to fully heal from a herniated disc. The process of healing involves the body’s natural ability to repair the damaged disc and alleviate symptoms.

    Herniated disc healing time can range from a few weeks to several months. It is important to note that individual experiences may differ, and the severity of the herniation, the patient’s overall health, and the chosen treatment approach can influence the recovery time.

    Conservative treatment methods, such as rest, physical therapy, pain management techniques, and lifestyle modifications, are often the initial approach to healing a herniated disc. With these methods, many patients experience relief from symptoms within a few weeks to a couple of months. However, complete healing and restoration of normal disc function may take longer.

    In cases where conservative measures do not provide sufficient relief, or if the herniated disc is causing severe symptoms that significantly impact daily life, surgical intervention may be considered. Surgery can provide more immediate relief, but the recovery process will still require time and rehabilitation to fully regain strength, flexibility, and functionality.

    It’s crucial for patients to work closely with their healthcare providers to develop a personalized treatment plan and set realistic expectations for their herniated disc recovery time. Following recommended treatments, adopting healthy lifestyle habits, and actively participating in rehabilitation exercises can enhance the healing process and contribute to a faster and more successful recovery.

    Treatment Methods

    “For about 10-15% of patients, the body cannot heal on its own and they’re left with ongoing pain symptoms. The most common treatment in this situation is a microdiscectomy. This surgery is very quick – it takes about 45 minutes – and most patients leave the hospital the same day.”
    Most (80-90%) cases involving bulging or herniated discs will heal within 2-4 months, depending on the severity of the injury, as well as your age and overall health. An important difference is that a herniated disc is a permanent injury that usually results in chronic, recurring pain, which is why exercises and activities to strengthen the supporting muscles are so essential.

    In cases where the pain and other symptoms do not get better with conservative treatment within six weeks, our physicians may discuss surgical options with you. The most common surgeries to address a disc herniation include:

    • Microdiscectomy. This procedure uses minimally invasive techniques, and the surgeon removes part of all of the herniated section of the disc. Recovery takes about six weeks.
    • Spinal fusion. This surgery involves fusing two or more vertebrae together to reduce the movement between bones. This surgery occurs when the discs are damaged due to age-related wear. Recovery time usually ranges from 3-6 months, as the bones need time to fuse while they heal.

    Evaluation and Treatment at The Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute

    If you think you may have a bulging or herniated disc, you should see a spine doctor. It’s important that you are seen by a physician who specializes in providing comprehensive orthopedic care.  Accordingly, our specialists will properly diagnose and treat complex spine conditions.

    Southwest Scoliosis and Spine Institute’s board-certified orthopedic surgeons, Richard Hostin, MDDevesh Ramnath, MDIshaq Syed, MD, Shyam Kishan, MD, and Kathryn Wiesman, MD have years of experience evaluating and treating patients with these kinds of conditions.

    With offices in DallasPlano, and Frisco, Texas, the doctors have treated more than 100,000 patients and performed more than 16,000 surgeries, and they can help you get back to living pain-free.

    Finally, if you are in pain and think you may have a bulging or herniated disc, we can help. Call us for an evaluation at (214) 308-0227 or visit our contact page today!