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Bulging Disk and Herniated Disk Differences
To better understand the difference between a bulging disk and a herniated disk, let’s first look at what a disk is.
The disk is the part of the spine that can be seen in between each vertebra of the spinal column. These small disks serve as a cushion or shock absorber in between each of the vertebra. Its tough circular exterior is called annulus fibrosus.
This outer layer of the disk is made up of sheets of collagen fibers which surround the inner layer of the disk. The inner layer of the disk, which is referred to as nucleus pulposus, is composed of a loose network of fibers. These fibers are suspended in a gel-like substance called mucoprotein.
This gel-like substance in the disks makes it possible for us to turn and twist our body, and to bend, without hurting the vertebrae. The disks also act as shock absorbers, which allows us to run and jump without breaking our spine.
The disk serves as protection to the spine and its nerves from any impact or stress that the body is exposed to every single day. However, just like any other parts of the body, the outer layer of these disks may become weak. This increases the risk of experiencing either a bulging or herniated disk.
What is a Bulging Disk?
This is a condition where the disk outer layer is not broken and its inner layer, which is the nucleus pulposus, is still intact. The sight of its inner content bulging is much like a volcano that is about to erupt. However, a bulging disk can be a precursor to herniation of the disk.
Although the bulging disk protrudes into the spinal canal its gel-like substance remains intact and has not leaked out. Through imaging, the bulge looks like a small bubble popping out. This bulge usually does not affect the entire perimeter of the disk. Some cases may only affect about a quarter to half of the entire circumference of the disk.
What is a Herniated Disk?
A herniated disk is a ‘non-contained’ disk. It’s where the outer layer has been broken and opened. It has ruptured. A herniated disk is also referred to as a ‘ruptured’ disk.
If a person is diagnosed with a herniated disk it means that the disk was placed under pressure. Imagine a tube of gel being squeezed under force. The pressure causes the inner content, which in the case of a disk is the nucleus pulposus, to force a rupture in the outer wall and leak out. If this occurs, its leaked contents may spread into the spinal nerves and spinal cord.
What are the Symptoms of a Herniated Disk?
Compared to a bulging disk, people who have a herniated disk are more likely to experience severe pain. This is because the leaked content of the disk contains chemicals that may irritate the nerve roots. Therefore, painful swelling and inflammation will be experienced.
People diagnosed with herniated disks also report feelings of electric-like pain. The pain may shoot down to their lower extremities. To add to the pain, numbness, stiffness, weakness and burning sensations are also felt. This radiating pain can also be accompanied by muscle cramps, spasms and general feelings of extreme discomfort.
The areas affected by pain symptoms will vary depending on the location of the herniated disk. For example, if the herniated disk occurs in the neck area, the person will experience neck pain that radiates down into the arms. On the other hand, if the herniated disk is situated in the lower back, the areas that are most likely to be affected are the feet and legs.
Individuals who often find themselves experiencing pain in their lumbar or cervical spine area should consult a spine specialist. Experiencing tingling pain and numbness that flows through the extremities is one of the telltale signs of having spinal nerve irritation.