Disc herniation versus Disc Bulge

What is the difference between a disc herniation and disc bulge

You just received your MRI results and it says that you have a disc herniation or disc bulge. I’m sure this might be worrisome to you. So what does this mean? 

First of all, these terms are often used interchangeably but, in reality, there is a difference between the two.

Anatomy of the disc

https://youtu.be/pDGXX5OwQ2Y

The discs are spacers found between two vertebrae.  They are responsible for movement between the vertebrae; flexion, extension, rotations and lateral bending. 

They are made up of the following parts

  1. Annulus fibrosus – It consists of strong fibrous layers of criss-crossing fibers that firmly attach to the vertebrae above and below.  It is responsible for holding the two vertebrae together and pressurizing the inside of the disc.
  2. Nucleus pulposus.  This is found in the inner core of the disc. It is of jelly-like consistency.  The nucleus really likes water.  It absorbs water when we lay down. This is why we are taller in the morning. That excess water is squished out when we stand up and move around. 

Disc herniation

As you bend forward the pressure on the front of the disc causes the jelly like nucleus pulposus to creep backwards.  With repetitive flexion or flexion and rotation activities fissures can form  and the layers of connective tissue can separate in the annulus fibrosus (known as delamination). The nucleus can then work it’s way down these fissures.  Over time these cracks and fissures can extend out to the periphery of the disc which causes the nucleus to herniate out into the space where the nerves/spinal cord are located.  This is a disc herniation.

Think of it like a jelly filled donut.  Take a bite on one side of the donut and the pressure squirts the jelly out the hold.  If the hole for the jelly wasn’t there the jelly would be contained and not squirt out. 

Interestingly though, when it comes to an intervertebral disc, vertical pressure down on the disc won’t cause the jelly to herniate out but bending forward can.

Disc bulge 

Disc bulges are typically age related.  As we age, the discs have less ability to hold onto water. Less water causes the disc to decrease in height and bulge outwards. 

Think of this like a deflated tire. When a tire’s pressure is less than optimal the  car will sit lower and sides of the tire will bulge out.  If the bulge projects backwards towards the spinal cord. 

Both of these situations may cause back pain when there is nerve irritation (due to chemical irritation or physical compression).  But at the same time, there are numerous people walking around right now with disc herniations or bulges who experience no pain at all.  Their herniations or bulges may be of similar size and shape as yours. So what this means is your disc herniations or bulges may just be incidental findings. 

Be aware that most disc issues get better. Even the worst disc herniations resolve; as a matter of fact they are the most likely to resolve. 

So what can you do? 

Be assessed by a chiropractor, athletic therapist or other professional who can determine what factors aggravate or relieve you.  Seek someone who gets you active, guides you towards self care and makes lifestyle modifications  to manage pain and return you to an active healthy life.

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