Bulging discs tend to be the most common cause of back pain. There are several different stages of breakdown within the discs of the spine and the bulging disc is normally the first phase of break down. Your discs are very much like jelly donuts. The outer portion of the disc is thick cartilaginous material; we call this the annulus. The inner portion of the disc is a jelly like material. The key to a healthy disc is to make sure you have healthy jelly. When you have a bulging disc, the annulus starts to break down because of micro tears. The jelly starts to push out the fibers where the weakness is present, resulting in a bulging disc. The nucleus is healthy but the annulus is weak. Another common cause is the nucleus dries out causing the annulus to bulge out. In this case your annulus is healthy, but you don’t have a healthy nucleus.
The key difference between a bulging disc and a herniated disc is that a bulging disc is a “contained” condition and a herniated disc is “non-contained”. What does this mean?
- Contained Condition – To be “contained” it means there is no tear or rupture within the outer layer of the disc. A bulging disc extends outside of the space it should normally occupy. This is a small bubble that bulges into the spinal canal. The bulge typically affects a large portion of the disc. The part of the disc that is bulging is usually the tough outer layer or cartilage. The gel-like interior does not leak out and remains intact except for the small bubble that pops out.
- Non-contained Condition – To be “non-contained” means there is a tear or rupture in the tough outer layer of cartilage allowing some of the softer inner cartilage to protrude out of the disc. When the disc herniates the gel-like nucleus pulpous may spread out to the spinal cord and spinal nerves. The protrusion of inner cartilage usually happens in one distinct area of the disc. In a bulging disc, typically, the protrusion happens in a large component of the disc. Other names for a herniated disc are ruptured disks or slipped disks. A herniated disc could of started as a bulging disc that created too much pressure on the outer wall of the disc.
Remember: A bulging disc is like a hamburger that is too big for its bun; a herniated disc is more similar to a tube of toothpaste that has broken due to pressure. The toothpaste oozes out of the container.
Symptoms associated with a bulging disc
Bulging disc symptoms can vary widely from person to person but the main factors are the locations of the discs. Pain caused by a bulging disc usually worsens when you are active and better when you are resting. Little things like bending forward, coughing, sitting or even driving can make the pain worse. This is because the pain gets worse you are putting more pressure on the nerve by moving.
- Neck symptoms include numbness, pain, weakness, and tingling that branches out from the shoulders, arms, chest, hands and fingers.
- Mid-back or thoracic areas of the spine symptoms include pain in the upper back that radiates to the chest or stomach area or upper thigh. It’s not as common here but may lead doctors or patients believing there are problems with the heart, gastrointestinal area, or lungs.
- Lower back or lumbar area symptoms will include pain that travels from the lower back to the buttocks, legs, and feet. It can also cause weakness, tingling, numbness in the legs as well as muscle spasms. This might lead to the development of sciatica.