You might have heard the terms slipped disc and bulging disc before. Chances are, you might not know that both are not the same thing. Both conditions affect your spine, but they are actually two different conditions. So, what’s the difference? Let’s take a look at what you should know about a slipped disc and a bulging disc to find out the difference.
What is a slipped disc?
A slipped disc, also known as herniated or prolapsed disc, is a problem that occurs to one of the cushions (disc) between the series of bones (vertebrae) that stack to make your spine. These discs protect your bones by absorbing the shocks they experience from daily activities, such as walking, twisting, and lifting. Each disc comes with two parts: a tough, rubbery outer ring (annulus) and a soft, jelly-like inner part (nucleus). Then the inner portion of the disc can push through a tear in the outer ring if you had injury or weakness. A slipped disc can occur in any part of your spine and irritate a nearby nerve. When you have a slipped disc, you may feel pain and discomfort. In some cases, the slipped disc can also compress one of the spinal nerves, which will result in pain and numbness that spread along the affected nerve.
A slipped disc is often caused by age-related wear and tear, known as disc degeneration. As you grow older, the discs become less flexible and even a minor strain can result in tears and ruptures. Certain motion can also cause a slipped disc, such as turning and twisting while lifting. A very large and heavy object can put a great strain on your lower back. Although it rarely happens, a traumatic event, including a fall or a blow to your back, can also cause a slipped disc. Aside from these causes, some factors increase the risk of getting a slipped disc. These risk factors are:
- Weight. People who are overweight or obese are more prone to having a slipped disc because excess weight causes extra stress on the discs in your lower back.
- Genetics. A predisposition to developing a slipped disc can be inherited.
- Occupation. Physically demanding jobs put you at a higher risk of back problems.
- Smoking. Smoking is said to lessen the oxygen supply to the disc, making it break down quicker.
What are the symptoms of a slipped disc?
A slipped disc can occur in any part of the spine, from the neck to the lower back. However, it is more common in your lower back. Although the symptoms can vary from one person to another, in general, the symptoms of a slipped disc are:
- Numbness and pain, usually only on one side of your body
- Pain extending to your legs and arms
- Pain that feels worse at night or after certain movements
- Pain that feels worse after sitting or standing
- Unexplained muscle weakness
- Aching, burning, or tingling sensations around the affected areas.
If you experience any of these symptoms or if the symptoms affect your ability to control your muscles, see your doctor as soon as possible. In some cases, you can have a slipped disc without experiencing any symptoms and many people never know that they have a slipped disc.
What are the treatments for a slipped disc?
The treatment of a slipped disc varies from conservative to surgical. A slipped disc treatment usually depends on the level of discomfort you experience and how far the disc slipped out. Most people can relieve the symptoms within a few days or weeks by modifying their activity. You can also take some medications to relieve the symptoms. These medications include:
- Over-the-counter pain medications, such as naproxen sodium (Aleve), ibuprofen (Motrin IB, Advil), or acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Muscle relaxers may be prescribed by your doctor if you experience muscle spasms.
- Cortisone injections are given if your pain doesn’t improve after taking oral medications.
- Opioids are only used for a short time if other medications were unsuccessful.
To help with your pain, you may be advised to undergo physical therapy. A professional physical therapist can teach you exercises and positions to minimize your pain. In severe cases, you may need surgery, especially if conservative treatments can’t improve your symptoms after around six weeks. Your surgeon may remove just the protruding portion of the disc, but in rare cases, a bone graft may need to be fused to the vertebrae. Very rarely, you may be suggested to undergo artificial disc implantation.
What is a bulging disc?
A bulging disc is a damaged disc that bugles and push back into the spinal canal. The disc typically bulges toward one side of the canal (left or right), which causes pain and a tingling sensation only on one side of the body. When a bulging disc occurs on your neck, it may be relatively painless or cause severe pain that spreads through your shoulders, arms, and chest. A bulging disc usually affects not just one, but multiple discs.
Just like a slipped disc, a bulging disc can occur when your spinal discs start to degenerate and weaken as you age. The most common cause of bulging discs is degenerative diseases, and over time it can result in spinal osteoarthritis. Some factors can increase your chance of developing a bulging disc, these factors are generally the same as slipped discs, such as being overweight or obese, genetics, occupations, strain, and smoking. However, there are other risk factors of a bulging disc, including:
- Poor posture when sitting, standing or working can put stress onto your spine. Slouching or forward bending of the spine can result in overstretching and weakness of the annulus.
- Inactivity, if you don’t exercise or you have a sedentary lifestyle, you are more likely to develop a bulging disc.
What are the symptoms of a bulging disc?
A bulging disc can usually be suspected if you experience back pain that worsens when you sit, cough or sneeze, lift, or forward bending. Pins and needles, leg pain, numbness or weakness, and sciatica are commonly linked to the symptoms of a bulging disc. Altered bowel and bladder function can also indicate a severe form of bulging discs. To know for sure whether or not you have a bulging disc, your doctor will perform some clinical tests, such as MRI, spinal X-rays, EMG, and CT scans.
What are the treatments for a slipped disc?
A slipped disc can also be treated with conservative treatment or surgery. The treatments include:
- Conservative treatment or non-operative management includes resting and over-the-counter medication.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen can be the first-line medication to treat a bulging disc. For a more severe case, you may also be prescribed a narcotic pain reliever or a muscle relaxer.
- Physical therapy can relieve pressure on the nerve and your physical therapist can show you exercises and positions to improve the symptoms.
- Cortisone injections or epidural steroid injections (ESI) can provide long-term relief.
- In very rare cases, you may need a surgical procedure to treat a bulging disc.
What’s the difference between the two?
Still confused? In short, a bulging disc is a damaged disc that bulges and pushes back into the spinal canal and the disc is not fully ruptured or torn. With a bulging disc, the entire perimeter of a disc may not be affected. The condition only involves the outer layer of the tough cartilage. Bulging discs can eventually lead to slipped discs. However, a slipped disc is a fully ruptured disc. It affects both the tough outer layer of the cartilage and the soft inner cartilage. A slipped disc occurs when the outer layer is torn or ruptured and allows some of the inner layer to slip out of the disc. The symptoms of the two can be similar, but a slipped disc usually cause more pain because it is more likely to irritate nerve roots.