People often think that bulging discs and herniated discs are the same. Though the two conditions are similar, there are some key differences. Bulging discs do not usually require surgery with the proper treatment and lifestyle modifications.
Bulging Discs and Herniated Discs — What is the Difference?
Both conditions affect the discs between our vertebrae. Discs are made up of a gel-like center called a nucleus that is surrounded by a thick, tough outer layer. Herniated discs and bulging discs also have similar symptoms and causes. Both conditions can irritate or put pressure on the nerve roots, which can result in pain, numbness, tingling, and muscle weakness. Both conditions may be caused by poor posture, spinal injury, repetitive strain on the spine, or normal wear on the spine from age.
Where the two conditions differ is a bulging disc is a “contained” disc disorder, and a herniated disc is “non-contained.” This means that when a disc is herniated, it has torn or ruptured, and a portion of the gel-like center has leaked into the spinal canal. A bulging disc is not torn or ruptured; a small “bubble” protrudes into the spinal canal, but the nucleus does not leak out.
It is possible for a herniated disc to begin as a bulging disc. If there is enough pressure on the outer wall of a bulging disc, it can rupture. Treatment can help to reduce the chances that a bulging disc will herniate. (Learn more about herniated discs.)
How To Treat a Bulging Disc
Bulging discs can often be treated with conservative methods. Over-the-counter pain medications like non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) can help with pain and swelling. Many people cannot take NSAIDs, so always talk directly with your healthcare provider prior to taking any new medicine (including over-the-counter) or starting physical therapy. Hot and cold therapy, using ice packs and heating pads, can also help to reduce swelling. Prescription medications or injections may be used to help manage your pain if over-the-counter medications don’t help.
Physical therapy is often recommended for those with bulging discs. The goal of physical therapy is to strengthen the back and abdominal muscles to support the spine and allow for more flexibility and movement. Many people find that physical therapy helps to relieve the symptoms of a bulging disc. It is also important to learn proper posture and lifting techniques so your posture doesn’t exacerbate the problem.
How to Prevent Bulging Discs
While there is no absolute way to prevent bulging discs, there are some lifestyle changes you can make to lessen your chances. If you already have a bulging disc, these tips can also help to ensure your condition doesn’t worsen.
Exercise helps to strengthen your back muscles and increase flexibility. This can help to take some of the pressure off your spine.
Keep your weight under control.
Weight gain makes our spines work harder to support us. Maintain a healthy diet, combined with exercise, to help manage your weight. Seek out foods that are high in fiber and omega fatty acids, but low in saturated fat. This can help to keep your discs healthy and lubricated.
You should be aware by now of the harmful effects smoking can have on your health. Nicotine also affects your discs by preventing them from absorbing the necessary nutrients to maintain their structure. If you smoke, do yourself — and your spine — a favor and quit.
Practice proper posture.
When your mother told you to sit up straight as a child, she was looking out for you. Slouching puts excessive pressure on the discs, increasing your chances of developing a bulging disc. Stand up straight, and sit all the way back against your chair. Also, make sure to hinge at the waist and bend your knees when lifting.
Most importantly, listen to your doctor’s instructions, and you should find relief from bulging discs.