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Home » Spine Conditions » Bulging Disc » What Is the Difference Between Bulging Disc and Disc Protrusion?

What is the difference between a bulging disc and a disc protrusion?

The discs of the spine are designed to take a pounding. Positioned between vertebrae, they cushion the bones from impact while still providing the flexibility needed to allow the neck and back to bend and twist. Shaped like a kidney bean, each disc has an inner, gel-like core encased in a tough outer wall called the annulus fibrosus. A healthy disc is tall enough to provide ample room for nerves exiting the spinal cord to thread outward without being constricted. Because spinal discs are constantly absorbing shocks, they tend to lose their resiliency over time. While this process can be accelerated by working in occupations that require a lot of heavy lifting, participating in contact sports and smoking, it is primarily the result of the natural aging process.

Discs usually deteriorate slowly and in stages. What can be confusing for patients is that health care professionals often use different terms to describe the same stage. For example, a herniated disc can also be called a ruptured disc, a prolapsed disc or a slipped disc. Further clouding the issue is that some doctors may use similar words to describe different conditions. This is often the case with the terms bulging disc and disc protrusion. While the two are related, they describe different degrees of disc deterioration. A bulging disc is one in which compression has forced the outer wall beyond its normal confines. With a disc protrusion, not only has the outer wall bulged outward, but the inner gel has migrated to the very edge of the annulus fibrosus. This can be thought of as a middle stage between a bulging disc and a herniated disc, in which the wall has developed a tear, allowing the inner material to escape.

A disc protrusion does not trigger symptoms until the outer wall comes in contact with a nearby nerve root. When this happens, it can cause sharp pain at the site of the injury as well as additional symptoms along the path of the affected nerve, including:

  • Numbness
  • Tingling
  • Muscle weakness or spasms
  • A burning sensation
  • A loss of fine motor skills in the fingers if the compressed nerve is in the upper spine

Treatments for a bulging or protruding disc usually begin with conservative options such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and physical therapy. If these strategies do not provide adequate pain relief after several months, more advanced treatments may be required to alleviate pressure on the compressed nerve.

At USA Spine Care, we are the leader in minimally invasive surgeries that help patients find long-term relief from chronic pain caused by a number of spine conditions, including bulging or protruded discs. The first step in learning if you might be a candidate for one of our outpatient procedures is to obtain a free MRI review.* Contact a member of our team today to learn more.

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