What’s the difference between bulging and herniated disks?

Your spine has a lot of moving pieces. There are bones (vertebrae), nerves that those bones protect and disks. The disks are small cushions of cartilage that sit between each vertebra to act as shock absorbers. Similar to a tiny jelly doughnut, they have an inner layer of soft cartilage beneath an outer layer of tougher cartilage.

Normally, all of these pieces line up exactly so that you can sit up, move and bend without pain. But sometimes, one of those disks can start to slide out of position between the spine bones. This is called a bulged disk, and it can be pretty painful.

Sometimes, a disk can rupture. This means that there’s a tiny crack in the outer layer of tough cartilage and the inner layer of soft cartilage is starting to leak out. That leaking inner “jelly” can push against the nerves of your spine and cause a lot of pain. This is also called a slipped or herniated disk. Disks that are already bulged may be more likely to rupture.

How can I avoid a herniated disk?

Your disks deteriorate slightly with age, and that can’t be avoided, but there are some things you can do to reduce your risk for a herniated disk.

If you can, stay physically active on a regular basis. People who are usually sedentary, but then do a burst of physical activity—like shoveling snow or moving furniture—are at risk. If your job requires a lot of heavy lifting and twisting, use a protective brace and make sure you use the correct lifting techniques to protect your back.

Learn more about the symptoms of disk disease

Whether a disk is bulged, slipped or herniated, many of the symptoms can be similar. These may include:

  • Back pain (either constant or off-and-on)
  • Muscle spasms in your back
  • Weakness or numbness in your legs or feet
  • Sciatica, or nerve pain in your legs
  • Changes in your bowel or bladder control

The most common trouble spot for disk problems is the lower back, so you may notice that the pain is worse in that area. Disk problems in the lower back are sometimes called lumbar disk disease.

If you think you might have a problem with one of your disks, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Your doctor will give you a physical exam to check your back, and he or she may also recommend an imaging test like an X-ray, CT scan or MRI.

What are the treatment options for a herniated disk?

Treatment for disk problems starts with non-invasive methods. These can include:

  • Bed rest
  • Physical therapy
  • Use of a back support brace
  • Medicines for pain and/or to relax the muscles

If these treatments don’t help, you may need surgery to remove the disk.

To schedule an appointment with a specialist at Main Line Health, call 1.866.CALL.MLH (1.866.225.5654) or use our secure online appointment request form.