Herniated vs. Bulging Discs

By Virginia Halpin, PTA

Herniated vs. Bulging Discs

If you’ve ever experienced spine pain, you may have encountered the terms “bulging disc” and “herniated disc.” But are they the same thing? What’s the difference? Here’s what you should know about bulging discs vs herniated discs.
A disc is made up of a soft, cushion-like material that sits between the back bones (vertebrae) of your spine. They are composed of a tough outer layer of cartilage that surrounds a softer cartilage center. It is best to think of a disc like a jelly donut. The donut has a jelly center surrounded by a cake layer. If you push down on the donut, the jelly on the inside starts to press on the cake layer, making the sides bulge out – this is a bulging disc. If you apply so much pressure that the jelly comes out of the donut, it becomes a herniated disc.

Diagram showing bulging discs and herniated discs. JOI Rehab

Difference in Herniated vs. Bulging Discs

Symptoms of a Bulging vs Herniated Disc

Bulging Disc

Since a bulging disc typically only affects one-quarter to one-half of the disc’s circumference, one may experience a gradual, progressive onset of symptoms. With a herniated disc, also known as slipped or ruptured disc, one is likely to experience a more sudden onset of pain. This is because it protrudes farther out and can irritate nerve roots that lie along your spine.

Illustration of a bulging disc. JOI Rehab

Bulging Disc

Herniated Disc

The symptoms of a herniated disc can vary depending on the location and severity of the herniation. In some cases, people with a herniated disc may not experience any symptoms at all. However, when symptoms do occur, they typically include pain, numbness, tingling, or weakness in the affected area.

Illustration of a herniated disc. JOI Rehab

Herniated Disc

If the herniated disc is in the lower back (lumbar spine), symptoms may include pain or numbness in the buttocks, legs, or feet, as well as muscle weakness in the legs. It is also common to experience sciatic nerve pain which can present as a sharp pain that shoots from your buttocks into your leg or foot. If the herniated is in the neck (cervical spine), symptoms may include pain or numbness in the neck, shoulders, arms, hand, as well as muscle weakness in the arms.

What Does Physical Therapy Entail for a Bulging or Herniated Disc?

Treatment for a bulging or herniated disc depends on the severity of symptoms and the location of the herniation. In most cases, conservative care like physical therapy can help you return to your normal activities and lifestyle. With the goal of developing knowledge to prevent a pain-free lifestyle, your physical therapist will work with you to:

  • Reduce lower back, leg, upper back, and arm pain
  • Improve mobility
  • Restore pain-free movement
  • Strengthen core muscles
  • Improve posture
  • Reduce muscle spasms
  • Improve strength and endurance

Your healthcare provider may also recommend an epidural steroid injection or medication to be used in conjunction with physical therapy in an effort to alleviate painful symptoms and strengthen the muscles surrounding the spine.
If conservative treatments are not effective, your spine specialist may recommend surgery. Surgery for a herniated disc may involve removing the herniated, or protruding, portion of the disc or fusing the affected vertebrae together.

Physical therapy is a conservative treatment option for back problems. JOI Rehab

Physical Therapist with Patient suffering from disc problems.

Preventing Bulging and Herniated Discs

Bulging and herniated discs are commonly a result of wear and tear over the years. As we age, our discs become more brittle which makes them more prone to damage. While it’s not always possible to prevent a herniated disc, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk in developing one. These include:

Maintaining a Healthy Weight: Excess weight can put extra strain on your spine,
increasing your risk of developing a herniated disc

Practicing Good Posture: Sitting and standing up straight can help reduce stress on your
spine and prevent injury.

Regular Exercise: Staying active can help keep your spine healthy and strong, reducing
your risk of injury

Lifting Property: When lifting heavy objects, be sure to lift with your legs, not your back,
to reduce the risk of injury.

Written By: Virginia Halpin, PTA

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