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Is a protruding disc the same as a herniated disc?

Many people are unclear about the precise differences between various degenerative spine conditions, such as a disc protrusion and a disc herniation. It doesn’t help that some health care professionals use these terms interchangeably, which only adds to the confusion.

To better understand the distinctions between a disc protrusion and a disc herniation, it may be helpful to think of the spinal discs as cushions situated in between vertebrae. Each disc consists of a soft inner core (nucleus pulposus) contained by a tough outer border (annulus fibrosus). Healthy discs serve as effective shock absorbers for the spine, helping to reduce the considerable stress exerted during both routine and strenuous activities.

What happens when a spinal disc protrudes?

Due to sudden trauma or the gradual effects of ongoing wear and tear, a disc can become dehydrated and damaged. As the annulus fibrosus weakens, it can allow some of the nucleus pulposus to bulge outward, or protrude beyond its normal boundary in the spinal column. This is known as a disc protrusion. You might envision what happens when you gently squeeze a jelly-filled doughnut — the effect is similar.

Bulging discs are very common and often painless. Usually, a disc protrusion will only require treatment if it pinches or compresses the spinal cord or a nerve root. A compressed nerve can produce a variety of symptoms, including pain, numbness, tingling sensations and muscle weakness.

What happens when a spinal disc herniates?

A herniated disc occurs when a weakened annulus fibrosus actually breaks open, allowing some of the nucleus pulposus to seep into the spinal canal. In addition to causing localized irritation, the escaped disc material can take up space and potentially exert pressure on a spinal nerve. As such, a disc protrusion and a disc herniation can produce similar symptoms.

When is surgery appropriate for treating a protruded or herniated disc?

If nonsurgical treatment, such as physical therapy and medications, does not provide adequate relief within approximately 12 weeks, it may be appropriate to consider a surgical procedure. Surgery can address the symptoms of a protruded or herniated disc at their source by decompressing the affected spinal nerve.

If you’d like to explore your surgical treatment options for a disc protrusion or disc herniation, contact USA Spine Care to request a free MRI review.* We can help determine if you are a candidate for our minimally invasive outpatient surgery.

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