Dr. Nikesh Seth often hears the terms “bulging disc,” “herniated disc,” and “slipped disc” used interchangeably by patients, but there are big differences between them. Spinal discs provide a cushion between the vertebrae. They are made up of various types of cartilage, including a tougher cartilage on the outside to protect the softer cartilage in the middle. They are about the same shape and size as a doughnut.
Unsurprisingly, discs take a lot of wear and tear. Since cartilage is connective tissue, it has very little blood supply. Blood is what provides growth factors and other healing elements to injury sites. In other words, when discs get worn down over time, they have little opportunity to heal themselves.
Wear and tear isn’t the only factor when it comes to discs becoming less effective over time. They can also become dehydrated. When this happens, the cartilage gets stiffer. Stiff cartilage can “bulge out,” and when this happens it is pretty even around the disc. Suddenly, that doughnut-shaped cartilage between your vertebra looks more like a hamburger patty getting squished down.
Bulging discs aren’t always squished perfectly evenly. For a disc to be considered bulging, usually at least 25 percent of the circumference is bulging. This might look a little strange on an x-ray, but in reality, it’s only that outer shell of cartilage that’s affected. The inside is perfectly safe with a bulging disc.
However, a herniated disc occurs when there’s a crack in that outer cartilage layer. The inner cartilage begins to stick out. Herniated discs is another term for slipped discs, but don’t let the names fool you. The entire disc doesn’t slip out of place. It’s just a small crack, but that can lead to major pain. It usually bothers nerve roots and becomes inflamed. However, in other situations, a person doesn’t even know they have a disc problem and report no pain at all.
A bulging disc is often a precursor to a slipped disc. If you have any type of back pain, it’s important to seek medical help immediately so you can avoid further damage. Call Integrated Pain Consultants at 480-626-2552 to learn more about a wide variety of available treatments.