Bulging vs. Herniated Discs: Is There a Difference?

How Do I Know if I Pinched a Nerve?
January 30, 2017

How to Tell the Difference between Bulging and Herniated Discs

Disc Protrusion. Medicine. 3D Illustration.Two spinal conditions that are frequently confused are bulging discs and herniated discs. Many actually assume that the two terms refer to the same condition. In order to understand the differences between the two, it is first important to understand how important discs are to protecting the health of the spine.

Vertebral discs are composed of a gelatinous center with a tough outer layer and act as cushions between the vertebrae. They help maintain spinal flexibility, protect the spinal cord, and act as a shock absorber for the vertebrae, keeping them from rubbing together. Healthy discs are integral to a healthy spine, which is why damage can cause painful or uncomfortable symptoms. Below are some of the main differences between these two common ailments that can affect the discs.

Bulging Discs

Bulging discs are also referred to as “contained” because they occur when the discs protrude beyond the vertebrae but the outer layer of the discs remains intact. They can occur as a part of the normal process of aging, particularly in those who have a family history of bulging discs. They can also be caused by certain repetitive stress injuries, accidents, and repeated substance abuse. Bulging discs are typically less likely to cause symptoms because the protrusion is contained to the outside of the disc and is therefore less likely to affect the nerves in the spine.

Herniated Discs

Herniated discs, on the other hand, are “non-contained” protrusions. They are also commonly referred to as “ruptured” or “slipped” discs because they occur when the outer layer of the disc ruptures and the gelatinous center is no longer fully contained. Herniated discs can be caused by leaving bulging discs untreated or by traumatic injuries to the spine.


Bulging and herniated discs are so often confused because their symptoms (if they cause symptoms at all) are typically very similar. They both can affect nearby nerves, which can cause pain, numbness, muscle weakness, or paralysis in the arms or legs depending on the location of the damage. Fortunately, these symptoms don’t have to be permanent. Many treatment options—including surgery—exist to repair the damage and reduce pain caused by bulging and herniated discs.

If you have bulging or herniated discs and are seeking relief from your painful symptoms, you can call Dr. Jeffrey M. Epstein to schedule a consultation so that you can start your journey towards a pain-free life.