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What's the Difference Between a Herniated Disc & a Bulging Disc?

Back pain is a common complaint responsible for disability and lost time at work. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that in 2019, 39% of American adults had an episode of back pain. 

A frequent cause of back pain originates with spinal disc disorders, causing pain ranging from dull aches to sharp stabs. Pain may be inconvenient, completely disabling, or anywhere between those extremes. 

When you’re suffering from back pain that’s strong enough to interfere with your life, it’s time to visit Steel City Spine and Orthopedic Center. Dr. Jocelyn R. Idema, one of the leading Pittsburgh orthopedic spine surgeons, specializes in disc disorders, including herniation. Count on Dr. Idema and her team to diagnose and treat your condition empathetically and professionally. 

Your disc disorder may be bulging or herniated. Though these disorders cause similar issues, they’re not the same injury. Here’s what you need to know. 

Spinal injuries

As the central support through your abdomen, the spine alternates bony vertebrae with softer discs between each pair. Discs have a tough, rubbery exterior called the annulus and a viscous gel-like interior called the nucleus.

As you get older, your spine succumbs to wear and tear, and the discs and vertebrae injuries occur from actions like heavy lifting, turning motions, or traumatic events like car accidents.  

The difference between herniated and bulging discs

The construction of a spinal disc compares with that of a jelly donut. The “jelly” of the disc — the nucleus —  presses out against the annulus or the “donut” in this analogy. When the nucleus presses against a weak spot in the annulus, a bulge can form, pushing beyond the normal boundaries of that disc. 

You could have a bulging disc without developing symptoms because the bulge might not press against nerve tissue. The weak spot in the annulus can heal and return to its original shape. 

If the nucleus breaks through the annulus, the disc becomes herniated. As a result, the annulus no longer contains the nucleus. This condition may also exist and heal without ever causing symptoms. 

However, a herniated disc is more likely to change shape in a way that can compress or irritate nerve tissue. While a bulging disc has similar potential, nerve compression is less likely when the annulus remains intact. 

Symptoms of nerve compression due to a disc disorder include:

A disc bulge or herniation can occur anywhere in the spine, but most happen in the lower back. The cervical spine, through the neck, is the next-most common location for symptomatic disc problems. 

Treating symptomatic disc issues

Most disc bulges and herniations heal in as many as 90% of cases. At Steel City Spine and Orthopedic Center, we guide you through conservative care to keep you comfortable while encouraging natural healing. 

In those rare cases that require surgical intervention, Dr. Idema uses minimally invasive surgical techniques, allowing you to recover faster and with less pain than traditional methods. 

With locations in Pittsburgh, McKees Rocks, and Washington, Pennsylvania, we’re strategically located to serve you. Contact Steel City Spine and Orthopedic Center by phone or online to schedule your consultation with Dr. Idema today.

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