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What is the difference between a herniated disc and a bulging disc?

A herniated disc is “non-contained” which means that a tear or break is present and a section of the gel-like nucleus pulposus has slipped into the spinal canal while a bulging disc is “contained“, meaning that the outer layer of the disc does not have any tears or ruptures, and no portion of the nucleus has leaked out of the disc.

Discs act as cushions between the vertebrae in the spine and are composed of an outer layer of tough cartilage (annulus) and softer cartilage in the center (nucleus). Functionally, discs are responsible for absorbing impact, maintaining spacing between the vertebrae, and preserving mobility. The annulus may break down as a result of repeated trauma and the natural process of aging, making the nucleus push through the annular cartilage.

During a herniated disc, which is considered "non-contained", a portion of the nucleus leaks into the spinal canal as a result of a tear or rupture in the annulus.

Bulging discs are quite common in both young adults and older people

If you have a bulging disc, as it presses on a nerve, you will experience symptoms in whatever part of your body the affected nerve serves. Both bulging and herniated discs can sometimes press against the spinal cord and the following symptoms can appear depending on where the disc is located in your thoracic or cervical spine:

  • changes in bladder or bowel function
  • deep pain near or over your shoulder blade
  • increased reflexes in one or both legs that can cause spasticity
  • muscle weakness, numbness, or tingling in one or both legs
  • pain moving your neck
  • paralysis from the waist down
  • radiating pain in your upper arm, forearm and possibly fingers

Disclaimer: We do not assume responsibility for the use of the provided information or its interpretation. Our efforts are towards providing current and reliable information; however these should not be considered, or used as a substitute for diagnosis or treatment.

Source: https://www.cedars-sinai.edu/Education/Medical-Library/